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H O W W E E E C E M E 



Virtual Bodies in 
Cybernetics, Literature, 
and Informatics 


The University of Chicago Press 
Chicago er London 

N. KATHERINE HAYLES is professor of English at the University of California, Los 
Angeles. She holds degrees in both chemistry and English. She is the author of The 
Cosmic Web: Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth Century 
(1984) and Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science 
( 1990) and is the editor of Chaos and Order. Complex Dynamics in Literature and 
Science (1991 ), the last published by the University of Chicago Press. 

The U niversitv of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637 

The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London 

© 1999 by The University of Chicago 

All rights reserved. Published 1999 

Printed in the United States of America 

08 07 06 05 04 03 02 01 00 34 5 

ISBN (cloth): 0-226-32145-2 
ISBN (paper): 0-226-32146-0 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publieation Data 
Hayles, N. Katherine. 

How we became posthuman : virtual bodies in cybernetics, 
literature, and informatics / N . Katherine Hayles. 
p. cm. 

Includes bibliographical references and index. 

ISBN: 0-226-32145-2 (cloth : alk. paper). — ISBN: 0-226-32146-0 
(pbk. : alk. paper) 

1. Artificial intelligence. 2. Cybernetics. 3. Computer science. 

4. Virtual reality. 5. Virtual reality in literature. I. Title. 

Q335.H394 1999 

003 '.5 — dc21 98-36459 


©The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the 
American National Standard for the Information Sciences — Permanence of Paper for 
Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39. 48-1992. 

For Nicholas 

one of the world’s great technology archivists 
and much more besides 


Acknowledgments / ix 
Prologue / xi 

1. Toward Embodied Virtuality / 1 

2. Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers / 25 

3. Contesting for the Body of Information: The Macy Conferences 
on Cybernetics / 50 

4. Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled: Norbert Wiener 
and Cybernetic Anxiety / 84 

5. From Hyphen to Splice: Cybernetic Syntax in Limbo / 7J3 

6. The Second Wave of Cybernetics: F rom Reflexivity 
to Self-Organization / 131 

7. Turning Reality Inside Out and Right Side Out: Boundary Work in 
the Mid-Sixties Novels of Philip K. Dick / 160 

8. The Materiality of Informatics / 192 

9. Narratives of Artificial Life / 222 

10. The Semiotics ofVirtuality: Mapping the Posthuman / 247 

11. Conclusion: What Does It Mean to Be Posthuman? / 283 

Notes / 293 
Index / 325 


The notion of distributed cognition, central to the posthuman as it is de- 
fined in this book, makes acknowledging intellectual and practical contri- 
butions to this project an inevitability as well as a pleasure. The arguments 
have benefited from conversations and correspondence with many friends 
and colleagues, among them Evelyn Fox Keller, Felicity Nussbaum, Rob 
Latham, Adalaide Morris, Brooks Landon, Peter Galison, Timothy Lenoir, 
Sandra Harding, Sharon Traweek, and Marjorie Luesebrink. Mark Poster 
and an anonymous reader for the University of Chicago Press gave valuable 
suggestions for revisions and rethinking parts of the argument. Tom Ray, 
Rodney Brooks, and Mark Tilden graciously spoke with me about their ar- 
tificial life projects, and Stefan Helmreich shared with me an early version 
of his book on artificial life. Many of my students gave valuable feedback 
and criticism of early versions of my ideas, including Carol Wald, Jim 
Berkley, Kevin Fisher, Evan Nisonson, Mark Sander, Linda Whitford, and 
Jill Galvin. 

I am also very grateful for the institutional support I have received, in- 
cluding a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, a fellowship from 
the Stanford Humanities Center, a Presidential Research Fellowship from 
the University of California, support from the Council on Research at the 
University of California at Los Angeles, and a leave of absence and research 
support from the University of Iowa. I could not have completed this pro- 
ject without this generous support. 

I owe a debt of gratitude as well to Routledge Press for allowing me to 
reprint “Narratives of Artificial Life,” from FutureNatural: Nature, Sci- 
ence, Culture, edited by George Robertson, Melinda Mash, Lisa Tickner, 
John Bird, Barry Curtis, and Tim Putnam, pp. 145-46, © 1996 (appearing 
in revised form as chapter 9); and “Designs on the Body: Cybernetics, Nor- 

i x 

x / Acknowledgments 

bert Wiener, and the Play of Metaphor,” from History of the Human Sci- 
ences 3(1990): 212-28 (appearing in revised from as aportion of chapter 4). 
Johns Hopkins University Press has graciously allowed me to reprint three 
articles appearing in Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and 
Technology — “The Materiality of Informatics,” Configurations 1 (1993): 
147-70 (appearing in revised form as a portion of chapter 8); “Boundary’ 
Disputes: Homeostasis, Refiexivity, and the Foundations of Cybernetics,” 
ibid. 3 ( 1994): 441-67 (appearing in revised form as part of chapter 3); and 
“The Posthuman Body: Inscription and Incorporation in Galatea 2.2 and 
Snow Crash* ibid. 5 (1997): 241-66 (appearing as part of chapter 10). MIT 
Press has given permission to reprint “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signi- 
fiers,” from October 66 (Fall 1993): 69-91 (appearing in slightly revised 
form as chapter 2). The University of North Carolina Press has given per- 
mission to reprint aportion of “Voices Out of Bodies, Bodies Out of Voices,” 
from Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies, edited 
by Adalaide Morris, pp. 74-78, 86-96, © 1997byThe University of North 
Carolina Press (appearing in revised form as a part of chapter 8). The Jour- 
nal of the Fantastic in the Arts has given permission to reprint “Schizoid 
Android: Cybernetics and the Mid-60s Novels of Dick,” JFIA 8 (1997): 
4 1 9 — 42 (appearing in slightly revised form as chapter 6). 

Finally, my greatest debt is to my family, who have listened patiently to 
my ideas over the years, and to my husband, Nick Gessler, from whom I 
have learned more than I can say. 


You are alone in the room, except for two computer terminals flickering in 
the dim light. You use the terminals to communicate with two entities in an- 
other room, whom you cannot see. Relying solely on their responses to your 
questions, you must decide which is the man, which the woman. Or, in an- 
other version of the famous “imitation game” proposed by Alan Turing in 
his classic 1950 paper “Computer Machinery and Intelligence,” you use 
the responses to decide which is the human, which the machine. 1 One of 
the entities wants to help you guess correctly. His/her/its best strategy, 
Turing suggested, may be to answer your questions truthfully. The other 
entity wants to mislead you. He/she/it will try to reproduce through the 
words that appear on your terminal the characteristics of the other entity'. 
Your job is to pose questions that can distinguish verbal performance from 
embodied reality. If you cannot tell the intelligent machine from the intel- 
ligent human, your failure proves, Turing argued, that machines can think. 

Here, at the inaugural moment of the computer age, the erasure of em- 
bodiment is performed so that “intelligence” becomes a property of the 
formal manipulation of symbols rather than enaction in the human life- 
world. The Turing test was to set the agenda for artificial intelligence for the 
next three decades. In the push to achieve machines that can think, re- 
searchers performed again and again the erasure of embodiment at the 
heart of the Turing test. All that mattered was the formal generation and 
manipulation of informational patterns. Aiding this process was a defini- 
tion of information, formalized by Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener, 
that conceptualized information as an entity distinct from the substrates 
carryingit. From this formulation, it was a small step to think of information 
as a kind of bodiless fluid that could flow between different substrates with- 
out loss of meaning or form. Writing nearly four decades after Turing, Hans 

x i i / Prologue 

Moravec proposed that human identity is essentially an informational pat- 
tern rather than an embodied enaction. The proposition can be demon- 
strated, he suggested, by downloading human consciousness into a 
computer, and he imagined a scenario designed to show that this was in 
principle possible. The Moravec test, if I may call it that, is the logical suc- 
cessor to the Turing test. Whereas the Turing test was designed to show that 
machines can perform the thinking previously considered to be an exclu- 
sive capacity' of the human mind, the Moravec test was designed to show 
that machines can become the repository of human consciousness — that 
machines can, for all practical purposes, become human beings. You are 
the cyborg, and the cyborg is you. 

In the progression from Turing to Moravec, the part of the Turing test 
that historically has been foregrounded is the distinction between thinking 
human and thinking machine. Often forgotten is the first example Turing 
offered of distinguishing between a man and a woman. If your failure to dis- 
tinguish correctly between human and machine proves that machines can 
think, what does it prove if you fail to distinguish woman from man? Why 
does gender appear in this primal scene of humans meeting their evolu- 
tionary' successors, intelligent machines? What do gendered bodies have to 
do with the erasure of embodiment and the subsequent merging of ma- 
chine and human intelligence in the figure of the cyborg? 

In his thoughtful and perceptive intellectual biography of Turing, 
Andrew Hodges suggests that Turing’s predilection was always to deal with 
the world as if it were a formal puzzle. 2 To a remarkable extent, Hodges 
says, Turing was blind to the distinction between saying and doing. Turing 
fundamentally did not understand that “questions involving sex, society, 
politics or secrets would demonstrate how what it was possible for people to 
say might be limited not by puzzle-solving intelligence but by the restric- 
tions on what might be done” (pp. 423-24). In a fine insight, Hodges sug- 
gests that “the discrete state machine, communicating by teleprinter alone, 
was like an ideal for [Turing’s] own life, in which he would be left alone in a 
room of his own, to deal with the outside world solely by rational argument. 
It was the embodiment of a perfect J. S . Mill liberal, concentrating upon the 
free will and free speech of the individual” (p. 425). Turing’s later embroil- 
ment with the police and court system over the question of his homosexu- 
ality played out, in a different key, the assumptions embodied in the Turing 
test. His conviction and the court-ordered hormone treatments for his ho- 
mosexuality' tragically demonstrated the importance of doing over saying 
in the coercive order of a homophobic society with the power to enforce its 
will upon the bodies of its citizens. 

Prologue / x i i i 

The perceptiveness of Hodges’s biography notwithstanding, he gives a 
strange interpretation of Turing’s inclusion of gender in the imitation 
game. Gender, according to Hodges, “was in fact a red herring, and one of 
the few passages of the paper that was not expressed with perfect lucidity. 
The whole point of this game was that a successful imitation of a woman’s 
responses by a man would not prove anything. Gender depended on facts 
which were not reducible to sequences of symbols” (p. 415). In the paper 
itself, however, nowhere does Turing suggest that gender is meant as a 
counterexample; instead, he makes the two cases rhetorically parallel , indi- 
cating through symmetry, if nothing else, that tire gender and the hu- 
man/machine examples are meant to prove the same thing. Is this simply 
bad writing, as Hodges argues, an inability to express an intended opposi- 
tion between the construction of gender and the construction of thought? 
Or, on the contrary; does the writing express a parallelism too explosive and 
subversive for Hodges to acknowledge? 

If so, now we have two mysteries instead of one. Why does Turing in- 
clude gender, and why does Hodges want to read this inclusion as indicat- 
ing that, so far as gender is concerned, verbal performance cannot be 
equated with embodied reality 7 ? One way to frame these mysteries is to see 
them as attempts to transgress and reinforce the boundaries of the subject, 
respectively. By including gender, Turing implied that renegotiating the 
boundary between human and machine would involve more than trans- 
forming the question of “who can think” into “what can think.” It would also 
necessarily bring into question other characteristics of the liberal sub- 
ject, for it made the crucial move of distinguishing between the enacted 
body, present in the llesh on one side of the computer screen, and the rep- 
resented body, produced through the verbal and semiotic markers consti- 
tuting it in an electronic environment. This construction necessarily makes 
the subject into a cyborg, for the enacted and represented bodies are 
brought into conjunction through the technology that connects them. If 
you distinguish correctly which is the man and which the woman, you in ef- 
fect reunite the enacted and the represented bodies into a single gender 
identity. The very 7 existence of the test, however, implies that you may also 
make the wrong choice. Thus the test functions to create the possibility of a 
disjunction between the enacted and the represented bodies, regardless 
which choice you make. What the Turing test “proves” is that the overlay 
between the enacted and the represented bodies is no longer a natural in- 
evitability but a contingent production, mediated by a technology that has 
become so entwined with the production of identity that it can no longer 
meaningfully be separated from the human subject. To pose the question 

x i v / Prologue 

of “what can think” inevitably also changes, in a reverse feedback loop, the 
terms of “who can think.” 

On this view, Hodges’s reading of the gender test as nonsignifying with 
respect to identity can be seen as an attempt to safeguard the boundaries of 
the subject from precisely this kind of transformation, to insist that the ex- 
istence of thinking machines will not necessarily affect what being human 
means. That Hodges s reading is a misreading indicates he is willing to prac- 
tice violence upon the text to wrench meaning away from the direction to- 
ward which the Turing test points, back to safer ground where embodiment 
secures the univocality of gender. I think he is wrong about embodiment’s 
securing the univocality of gender and wrong about its securing human 
identity, but right about the importance of putting embodiment back into 
the picture. What embodiment secures is not the distinction between male 
and female or between humans who can think and machines which cannot. 
Rather, embodiment makes clear that thought is a much broader cognitive 
function depending for its specificities on the embodied form enacting it. 
This realization, with all its exfoliating implications, is so broad in its effects 
and so deep in its consequences that it is transforming the liberal subject, 
regarded as the model of the human since the Enlightenment, into the 

Think of the Turing test as a magic trick. Like all good magic tricks, the 
test relies on gettingyou to accept at an early stage assumptions that will de- 
termine how you interpret what you see later. The important intervention 
comes not when you try to determine which is the man, the woman, or the 
machine. Rather, the important intervention comes much earlier, when the 
test puts you into a cybernetic circuit that splices your will, desire, and per- 
ception into a distributed cognitive system in which represented bodies are 
joined with enacted bodies through mutating and flexible machine inter- 
faces. As you gaze at the flickering signifiers scrolling down the computer 
screens, no matter what identifications you assign to the embodied entities 
that you cannot see, you have already become posthuman. 

C h q p t e r One 


We need first to understand that the human form — including human desire and all its 
external representations — may be changing radically, and thus must he re-visioned. We 
need to understand that five hundred years ofhunmnism nuiy be coming to an end as 
humanism transforms itself into something that we must helplessly call post-humanism. 

Ihab Hassan, “Prometheus as Performer: Towards a Posthumanist Culture?” 

This book began with a roboticist’s dream that struck me as a nightmare. I 
was reading Hans Moravecs Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Hu- 
man Intelligence, enjoying the ingenious variety' of his robots, when I hap- 
pened upon the passage where lie argues it will soon be possible to 
download human consciousness into a computer. 1 To illustrate, he invents 
a fantasy scenario in which a robot surgeon purees the human brain in a 
kind of cranial liposuction, reading the information in each molecular layer 
as it is stripped away and transferring the information into a computer. At 
the end of the operation, the cranial cavity is empty, and the patient, now in- 
habiting the metallic body of the computer, wakens to find his conscious- 
ness exactly the same as it was before. 

How', I asked myself, was it possible for someone of Moravecs obvious 
intelligence to believe that mind could be separated from bod)'? Even as- 
suming such a separation was possible, how could anyone think that con- 
sciousness in an entirely different medium would remain unchanged, as if 
it had no connection with embodiment? Shocked into awareness, I began 
noticing he was far from alone. As early as the 1950s, Norbert Wiener pro- 
posed it was theoretically possible to telegraph a human being, a suggestion 
underlaid by the same assumptions informing Moravecs scenario. 2 The 
producers of Star Trek operate from similar premises when they imagine 
that the body can be dematerialized into an informational pattern and re- 
materialized, without change, at a remote location. Nor is the idea confined 
to what Beth Loffreda has called “pulp science.” 3 Much of the discourse on 
molecular biology' treats information as the essential code the body ex- 
presses, a practice that has certain affinities with Moravecs ideas. 4 In fact, 
a defining characteristic of the present cultural moment is the belief that in- 
formation can circulate unchanged among different material substrates. It 

2 / Chapter One 

is not for nothing that “Beam me up, Scott) ,” has become a cultural icon for 
the global informational society. 

Following this thread, I was led into a maze of developments that turned 
into a six-year odyssey of researching archives in the history of cybernetics, 
interviewing scientists in computational biology and artificial life, reading 
cultural and literary texts concerned with information technologies, visit- 
ing laboratories engaged in research on virtual reality, and grappling with 
technical articles in cybernetics, information theory 7 , autopoiesis, com- 
puter simulation, and cognitive science . Slowly this unruly mass of material 
began taking shape as three interrelated stories. The first centers on how 
information lost its body, that is, how it came to be conceptualized as an en- 
tity separate from the material forms in which it is thought to be embedded. 
The second story concerns how the cyborg teas created as a technological 
artifact and cultural icon in the years following World War II. The third, 
deeply implicated with the first two, is the unfolding story of how a histori- 
cally specific construction called the h uman is gi ving way to a different con - 
struction called the posthuman. 

Interrelations between the three stories are extensive. Central to the 
construction of the cyborg are informational pathways connecting the or- 
ganic body to its prosthetic extensions. This presumes a conception of in- 
formation as a (disembodied) entity that can flow between carbon-based 
organic components and silicon-based electronic components to make 
protein and silicon operate as a single system. When information loses its 
body, equating humans and computers is especially easy, for the materiality 
in which the thinking mind is instantiated appears incidental to its essential 
nature. Moreover, the idea of the feedback loop implies that the bound- 
aries of the autonomous subject are up for grabs, since feedback loops can 
flow not only within the subject but also between the subject and the envi- 
ronment. From Norbert Wiener on, the flow of information through feed- 
back loops has been associated with the deconstruction of the liberal 
humanist subject, the version of the “human” with which I will be con- 
cerned. Although the “posthuman” differs in its articulations, a common 
theme is the union of the human with the intelligent machine. 

What is the posthuman? Think of it as a point of view characterized by 
the following assumptions. (I do not mean this list to be exclusive or defini- 
tive. Rather, it names elements found at a variety of sites. It is meant to be 
suggestive rather than prescriptive. ) 5 First, the posthuman view privileges 
informational pattern over material instantiation, so that embodiment in a 
biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than an in- 
evitability of life. Second, the posthuman view considers consciousness, re- 

Toward Embodied Virtuality / 3 

garded as the seat of human identity in the Western tradition long before 
Descartes thought he was a mind thinking, as an epiphenomenon, as an evo- 
lutionary upstart trying to claim that it is the whole show when in actuality 
it is only a minor sideshow. Third, the posthuman view thinks of the body as 
the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, so that extending or re- 
placing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process 
that began before we w ? ere born. F ourth, and most important, by these and 
other means, the posthuman view configures human being so that it can be 
seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines. In the posthuman, there 
are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily exis- 
tence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological or- 
ganism, robot teleology and human goals. 

To elucidate the significant shift in underlying assumptions about sub- 
jectivity signaled by the posthuman, we can recall one of the definitive texts 
characterizing the liberal humanist subject: C. B. Macpherson s analysis of 
possessive individualism. “Its possessive quality is found in its conception 
of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capaci- 
ties, owing nothing to society for them. . . . The human essence is freedom 
from the. wills of others , and freedom is a function of possession .” 6 The ital- 
icized phrases mark convenient points of departure for measuring the dis- 
tance between the human and the posthuman. “Owing nothing to society” 
comes from arguments Hobbes and Locke constructed about humans in a 
“state of nature” before market relations arose. Because ownership of one- 
self is thought to predate market relations and owe nothing to them, it 
forms a foundation upon w'hich those relations can be bnilt, as when one 
sells ones labor for wages. As Macpherson points out, however, this imag- 
ined “state of nature” is a retrospective creation of a market society. The lib- 
eral self is produced by market relations and does not in fact predate them. 
This paradox (as Macpherson calls it) is resolved in the posthuman by doing 
away with the “natural” self. The posthuman subject is an amalgam, a 
collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity 
whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction. 
Consider the six-million-dollar man, a paradigmatic citizen of the posthu- 
man regime. As his name implies, the parts of the self are indeed owned, 
but they are owned precisely because they were purchased, not because 
ownership is a natural condition preexisting market relations. Similarly, the 
presumption that there is an agency, desire , or wall belonging to the self and 
clearly distinguished from the “wills of others” is undercut in the posthu- 
man, for the posthuman’s collective heterogeneous quality implies a dis- 
tributed cognition located in disparate parts that may be in only tenuous 

i, / Chapter One 

communication with one another. We have only to recall Roboeop s mem- 
ory flashes that interfere with his programmed directives to understand 
how the distributed cognition of the posthuman complicates individual 
agency. If “human essence is freedom from the wills of others,” the posthu- 
man is “post” not because it is necessarily unfree but because there is no a 
priori way to identify a self-will that can be clearly distinguished from an 
other-will. Although these examples foreground the cybernetic aspect of 
the posthuman, it is important to recognize that the construction of the 
posthuman does not require the subject to be a literal cyborg. Whether or 
not interventions have been made on the body, new’ models of subjectivity 
emerging from such fields as cognitive science and artificial life imply that 
even a biologically unaltered Homo sapiens counts as posthuman. The de- 
fining characteristics involve the construction of subjectivity, not the pres- 
ence of nonbiological components. 

What to make of this shift from the human to the posthuman, which both 
evokes terror and excites pleasure? The liberal humanist subject has, of 
course, been cogently criticized from a number of perspectives. Feminist 
theorists have pointed out that it has historically been constructed as a 
w'hite European male, presuming a universality that has worked to sup- 
press and disenfranchise women's voices; postcolonial theorists have taken 
issue not only with the universality’ of the (w’hite male) liberal subject but 
also with the very’ idea of a unified, consistent identity, focusing instead on 
hybridity; and postmodern theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Felix 
Guattari have linked it with capitalism, arguing for the liberatory potential 
of a dispersed subjectivity distributed among diverse desiring machines 
they call “body without organs .” 7 Although the deconstruction of the lib- 
eral humanist subject in cybernetics has some affinities with these perspec- 
tives, it proceeded primarily along lines that sought to understand human 
being as a set of informational processes. Because information had lost its 
body, this construction implied that embodiment is not essential to human 
being. Embodiment has been systematically downplayed or erased in the 
cybernetic construction of the posthuman in ways that have not occurred in 
other critiques of the liberal humanist subject, especially in feminist and 
postcolonial theories. 

Indeed, one could argue that the erasure of embodiment is a feature 
common to both the liberal humanist subject and the cybernetic posthu- 
man. Identified with the rational mind, the liberal subject possessed a body 
but was not usually represented as being a body. Only because the body is 
not identified with the self is it possible to claim for the liberal subject its 
notorious universality, a claim that depends on erasing markers of bodily 

Toward Embodied Virtuality / 5 

difference, including sex, race, and ethnicity. 8 Gillian Brown, in her influ- 
ential study of the relation between humanism and anorexia, shows that the 
anoretic’s struggle to “decrement” the body is possible precisely because 
the body is understood as an object for control and master)' rather than as 
an intrinsic part of the self. Quoting an anoretic’s remark — “You make out 
of your body your very own kingdom where you are the tyrant, the absolute 
dictator” — Brown states, “Anorexia is thus a fight for self-control, a flight 
from the slaver)' food threatens; self-sustaining self-possession indepen- 
dent of bodily desires is the anoretic’s crucial goal.” 9 In taking the self-pos- 
session implied by liberal humanism to the extreme, the anoretic creates a 
physical image that, in its skeletal emaciation, serves as material testimony 
that the locus of the liberal humanist subject lies in the mind, not the body. 
Although in many ways the posthuman deconstructs the liberal humanist 
subject, it thus shares with its predecessor an emphasis on cognition rather 
than embodiment. William Gibson makes the point vividly in Neuro- 
niancer when the narrator characterizes the posthuman body as “data 
made flesh. ” 10 To the extent that the posthuman constructs embodiment as 
the instantiation of thought/information, it continues the liberal tradition 
rather than disrupts it. 

In tracing these continuities and discontinuities between a “natural” self 
and a cybernetic posthuman, I am not trying to recuperate the liberal sub- 
ject. Although I think that serious consideration needs to be given to how 
certain characteristics associated with the liberal subject, especially agency 
and choice, can be articulated within a posthuman context, I do not mourn 
the passing of a concept so deeply entwined with projects of domination 
and oppression. Rather, I view the present moment as a critical juncture 
when interventions might be made to keep disembodiment from being 
rewritten, once again, into prevailing concepts of subjectivity. I see the de- 
construction of the liberal humanist subject as an opportunity to put back 
into the picture the flesh that continues to be erased in contemporary dis- 
cussions about cybernetic subjects. Hence my focus on how information 
lost its body, for this story is central to creating what Arthur Kroker has 
called the “flesh-eating 90s.” 11 If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by 
posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the 
ground of being, my dream is aversion of the posthuman that embraces the 
possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fan- 
tasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes 
and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that under- 
stands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one 
on which we depend for our continued survival. 

6 / Chapter One 

Perhaps it will now be clear that I mean my title. How We Became 
Posthuman, to connote multiple ironies, which do not prevent it from also 
being taken seriously. Taken straight, this title points to models of subjec- 
tivity sufficiently different from the liberal subject that if one assigns the 
term “human” to this subject, it makes sense to call the successor “posthu- 
man.” Some of the historical processes leading to this transformation are 
documented here, and in this sense the book makes good on its title. Yet my 
argument will repeatedly demonstrate that these changes were never com- 
plete transformations or sharp breaks; without exception, they reinscribed 
traditional ideas and assumptions even as they articulated something new-. 
The changes announced by the title thus mean something more complex 
than “That was then, this is now.” Rather, “human” and “posthuman” coex- 
ist in shifting configurations that vary with historically specific contexts. 
Given these complexities, the past tense in the title — “became” — is in- 
tended both to offer the reader the pleasurable shock of a double take and 
to reference ironically apocalyptic visions such as Moravec s prediction of a 
“postbiological” future for the human race. 

Amplifying the ambiguities of the past tense are the ambiguities of the 
plural. In one sense, “we” refers to the readers of this book — readers who, 
by becoming aware of these new models of subjectivity (if they are not al- 
ready familiar with them ) , may begin thinking of their actions in ways that 
have more in common with the posthuman than the human. Speaking for 
myself, I now find myself saying things like, “Well, my sleep agent wants to 
rest, but my food agent says I should go to the store.” Each person who 
thinks this way begins to envision herself or himself as a posthuman collec- 
tivity-, an “I” transformed into the “we” of autonomous agents operating to- 
gether to make a self The infectious power of this way of thinking gives 
“we” a performative dimension. People become posthuman because they 
think they are posthuman. In another sense “we,” like “became,” is meant 
ironically, positioning itself in opposition to the techno-ecstasies found in 
various magazines, such as Mondo 2000, which customarily speak of the 
transformation into the posthuman as if it were a universal human condi- 
tion when in fact it affects only a small fraction of the world’s population — 
a point to which I will return. 

The larger trajectory of my narrative arcs from the initial moments when 
cybernetics w as formulated as a discipline, through a period of reformula- 
tion known as “second-order cybernetics,” to contemporary- debates 
swirling around an emerging discipline known as “artificial life.” Although 
the progression is chronological, this book is not meant to be a history of cy- 
bernetics. Many figures not discussed here played important roles in that 

Toward Embodied Virtuality / y 

history, and I have not attempted to detail their contributions. Rather, my 
selection of theories and researchers has been dictated by a desire to show 
the complex interplays between embodied forms of subjectivity and argu- 
ments for disembodiment throughout the cybernetic tradition. In broad 
outline, these interplays occurred in three distinct waves of development. 
The first, from 1945 to 1960, took homeostasis as a central concept; the sec- 
ond, going roughly from 1960 to 1980, revolved around reflexivity; and the 
third, stretching from 1980 to the present, highlights virtuality'. Let me turn 
now to a brief sketch of these three periods. 

During the foundational era of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, John 
von Neumann, Claude Shannon, Warren McCulloch, and dozens of other 
distinguished researchers met at annual conferences sponsored by the 
Josiah Macy Foundation to formulate the central concepts that, in their high 
expectations, would coalesce into a theory' of communication and control 
applying equally to animals, humans, and machines. Retrospectively called 
the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, these meetings, held from 1943 to 
1954, were instrumental in forging a new paradigm. 12 To succeed, they 
needed a theory' of information (Shannon’s bailiwick), a model of neural 
functioning that showed how neurons worked as information-processing 
systems (McCulloch’s lifework), computers that processed binary code and 
that could conceivably reproduce themselves, thus reinforcing the analogy 
with biological systems (von Neumanns specialty'), and a visionary who 
could articulate the larger implications of the cybernetic paradigm and 
make clear its cosmic significance (Wiener s contribution). The result of this 
breathtaking enterprise was nothing less than a new way of looking at human 
beings. Henceforth, humans were to be seen primarily as information-pro- 
cessing entities who are essentially similar to intelligent machines. 

The revolutionary' implications of this paradigm notwithstanding, 
Wiener did not intend to dismantle the liberal humanist subject. He was 
less interested in seeing humans as machines than he was in fashioning hu- 
man and machine alike in the image of an autonomous, self-directed indi- 
vidual. In aligning cybernetics with liberal humanism, he was following a 
strain of thought that, since the Enlightenment, had argued that human be- 
ings could be trusted with freedom because they and the social structures 
they devised operated as self-regulating mechanisms. 13 For Wiener, cy- 
bernetics was a means to extend liberal humanism, not subvert it. The point 
was less to show that man was a machine than to demonstrate that a ma- 
chine could function like a man. 

Yet the cybernetic perspective had a certain inexorable logic that, espe- 
cially when fed by wartime hysteria, also worked to undermine the very lib- 

8 / Chapter One 

eral subjectivity that Wiener wanted to preserve. These tensions were kept 
under control during the Macy period partly through a strong emphasis on 
homeostasis. 1 4 Traditionally, homeostasis had been understood as the ability 
ofliving organisms to maintain steady states when they are buffeted by fickle 
environments. When the temperature soars, sweat pours out of the human 
body so that its internal temperature can remain relatively stable . During the 
Macy period, the idea of homeostasis was extended to machines. Like ani- 
mals, machines can maintain homeostasis using feedback loops. Feedback 
loops had long been exploited to increase the stability of mechanical systems, 
reaching a high level of development during the mid-to-late nineteenth cen- 
tury with the growing sophistication of steam engines and their accompany- 
ing control devices, such as governors. It was not until the 1930s and 1940s, 
however, that the feedback loop was explicitly theorized as a flow of informa- 
tion. Cybernetics was bom when nineteenth-century control theory joined 
with the nascent theory of information. 15 Coined from the Greek word for 
“steersman,” cybernetics signaled that three powerful actors — information, 
control, and communication — were now operating jointly to bring about an 
unprecedented synthesis of the organic and the mechanical. 

Although the informational feedback loop was initially linked with 
homeostasis, it quickly led to the more threatening and subversive idea of 
reflexivity. A few years ago I co- taught, with a philosopher and a physicist, a 
course on reflexivity. As we discussed reflexivity in the writings of Aristotle, 
Fichte, Kierkegaard, Gddel, Turing, Borges, and Calvino, aided by the in- 
sightful analyses of Roger Penrose and Douglas Hofstader, I was struck not 
only by the concepts extraordinarily rich history but also by its tendency to 
mutate, so that virtually any formulation is sure to leave out some relevant 
instances. Instructed by the experience, I offer the following tentative def- 
inition, which I hope will prove adequate for our purposes here. Reflexivity 
is the movement whereby that which has been used to generate a system is 
made, through a changed, perspective, to become part of the system it gen- 
erates. When Kurt Godel invented a method of coding that allowed state- 
ments of number theory also to function as statements about number 
theory, he entangled that which generates the system with the system. 
When M . C . Escher drew two hands drawing each other, he took that which 
is presumed to generate the picture — the sketching hand — and made it 
part of the picture it draws. When Jorge Luis Borges in “The Circular Ru- 
ins” imagines a narrator who creates a student through his dreaming only to 
discover that he himself is being dreamed by another, the system generat- 
ing a reality is shown to be part of the reality it makes. As these examples il- 
lustrate, reflexivity has subversive effects because it confuses and entangles 

Toward Embodied Virtuality / 9 

the boundaries we impose on the world in order to make sense of that 
world. Reflexivity tends notoriously toward infinite regress. The dreamer 
creates the student, but the dreamer in turn is dreamed by another, who in 
his turn is dreamed by someone else, and so on to infinity. 

This definition of reflexivity has much in common with some of the most 
influential and provocative recent work in critical theory, cultural studies, 
and the social studies of science. Typically, these works make the reflexive 
move of showing that an attribute previously considered to have emerged 
from a set of preexisting conditions is in fact used to generate the condi- 
tions. In Nancy Armstrongs Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political His- 
tory of the Novel, for example, bourgeois femininity is shown to be 
constructed through the domestic fictions that represent it as already in 
place . 16 In Michael Warners The Letters of the Republic: Publication and 
the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America, the founding document 
of the United States, the Constitution, is shown to produce the very people 
whose existence it presupposes , 17 In Bruno Latour’s Science in Action: 
How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society, scientific experi- 
ments are shown to produce the nature whose existence they predicate as 
their condition of possibility . 18 It is only a slight exaggeration to say that 
contemporary critical theory 7 is produced by the reflexivity' that it also pro- 
duces (an observation that is, of course, also reflexive). 

Reflexivity entered cybernetics primarily through discussions about the 
observer. By and large, first-wave cybernetics followed traditional scientific 
protocols in considering observers to be outside the system they 
observe. Yet cybernetics also had implications that subverted this premise. 
The objectivist view sees information flowing from the system to the ob- 
servers, but feedback can also loop th rough the observers, drawing them in 
to become part of the system being observed. Although participants re- 
marked on this aspect of the cybernetic paradigm throughout the Macy 
transcripts, they lacked a single word to describe it. To my knowledge, the 
word “reflexivity 7 ” does not appear in the transcripts. This meant they had no 
handle with which to grasp this slippery concept, no signifier that would help 
to constitute as well as to describe the changed perspective that reflexivity 
entails. Discussions of the idea remained diffuse. Most participants did not 
go beyond remarking on the shifting boundaries between observer and sys- 
tem that cybernetics puts into play. With some exceptions, deeper formula- 
tions of the problem failed to coalesce during the Macy discussions. 

The most notable exception turned out to hurt more than it helped. 
Lawrence Kubie, a hard-line Freudian psychoanalyst, introduced a re- 
flexive perspective when he argued that every utterance is doubly encoded. 

io / Chapter One 

acting both as a statement about the outside world and as a mirror reflecting 
the speaker’s psyche. If reflexivity was already a subversive concept, this in- 
terpretation made it doubly so, for it threatened to dissolve the premise of 
scientific objectivity shared by the physical scientists in the Macy group. 
Their reactions to Kubie’s presentations show them shying away from re- 
flexivity, preferring to shift the conversation onto more comfortable ground. 
Nevertheless, the idea hung in the air, and a few key thinkers — especially 
Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Heinz von Foerster— resolved to 
pursue it after the Macy Conferences ran out of steam. 

The second wave of cybernetics grew out of attempts to incorporate re- 
flexivity' into the cybernetic paradigm at a fundamental level. The key issue 
was how systems are constituted as such, and the key problem was how to 
redefine homeostatic systems so that the observer can be taken into 
account. The second wave was initiated by, among others, Heinz von 
Foerster, the Austrian emigre who became coeditor of the Macy tran- 
scripts. This phase can be dated from 1960, when von Foerster wrote the 
first of the essays that were later collected in his influential book Observing 
Systems. 19 As von Foerster s punning title recognizes, the observer of sys- 
tems can himself be constituted as a system to be observed. Von Foerster 
called the models he presented in these essays second-order cybernetics 
because they extended cybernetic principles to the cyberneticians them- 
selves. The second wave reached its mature phase with the publication of 
Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s Autopoiesis and Cognition: 
The Realization of the Living. 20 Building on M aturana s work on reflexivity’ 
in sensory processing and Varela’s on the dynamics of autonomous biologi- 
cal systems, the two authors expanded the reflexive turn into a fully articu- 
lated epistemology’ that sees the world as a set of informationally closed 
systems. Organisms respond to their environment in ways determined by 
their internal self-organization. Their one and only goal is continually to 
produce and reproduce the organization that defines them as systems. 
Hence, they not only are self-organizing but also are autopoietic, or self- 
making. Through Maturana and Varela’s work and that of other influential 
theorists such as German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, 21 cybernetics by 
1980 had spun off from the idea of reflexive feedback loops a theory of au- 
topoiesis with sweeping epistemological implications. 

In a sense, autopoiesis turns the cybernetic paradigm inside out. Its cen- 
tral premise — that systems are informationally closed — radically alters 
the idea of the informational feedback loop, for the loop no longer func- 
tions to connect a system to its environment. In the autopoietic view, no 
information crosses the boundary separating the system from its environ- 

Toward Embodied Virtuality / 1 1 

merit. We do not see a world “out there” that exists apart from us. Rather, 
we see only what our systemic organization allows us to see. The environ- 
ment merely triggers changes determined by the system’s own structural 
properties. Thus the center of interest for autopoiesis shifts from the cy- 
bernetics of the observed system to the cybernetics of the observer. Au- 
topoiesis also changes the explanation of what circulates through the 
system to make it work as a system. The emphasis now is on the mutually 
constitutive interactions between the components of a system rather than 
on message, signal, or information. Indeed, one could say either that infor- 
mation does not exist in this paradigm or that it has sunk so deeply into the 
system as to become indistinguishable from the organizational properties 
defining the system as such. 

The third wave swelled into existence when self-organization began to 
be understood not merely as the (re)production of internal organization 
but as the springboard to emergence. In the rapidly emerging field of arti- 
ficial life, computer programs are designed to allow “creatures” (that is, dis- 
crete packets of computer codes) to evolve spontaneously in directions the 
programmer may not have anticipated. The intent is to evolve the capacity 
to evolve. Some researchers have argued that such self-evolving programs 
are not merely models of life but are themselves alive. What assumptions 
make this claim plausible? If one sees the universe as composed essentially 
of information, it makes sense that these “creatures” are lif e forms because 
they have the form of life, that is, an informational code. As a result, the the- 
oretical bases used to categorize all life undergo a significant shift. As we 
shall see in chapters 9 and 10, when these theories are applied to human be- 
ings, Homo sapiens are so transfigured in conception and purpose that they 
can appropriately be called posthuman. 

The emergence of the posthuman as an informational-material entity is 
paralleled and reinforced by a corresponding reinterpretation of the deep 
structures of the physical world. Some theorists, notably Edward Fredkin 
and Stephen Wolfram, claim that reality is a program mn on a cosmic com- 
puter. 22 In this view, a universal informational code underlies the structure 
of matter, energy, spacetime — indeed, of everything that exists. The code is 
instantiated in cellular automata, elementary units that can occupy two 
states: on or off. Although the jury is still out on the cellular automata model, 
it may indeed prove to be a robust way to understand reality. Even now, a re- 
search team headed by Fredkin is working on showing how quantum me- 
chanics can be derived from an underlying cellular automata model. 

What happens to the embodied lifeworld of humans in this paradigm? 
In itself, the cellular automata model is not necessarily incompatible with 

12 / Chapter One 

recognizing that humans are embodied beings, for embodiment can flow 
from cellular automata as easily as from atoms. No one suggests that be- 
cause atoms are mostly empty space, we can shuck the electron shells and 
do away with occupying space altogether. Yet the cultural contexts and 
technological histories in which cellular automata theories are embedded 
encourage a comparable fantasy — that because we are essentially informa- 
tion, we can do away with the body. Central to this argument is a conceptu- 
alization that sees information and materiality as distinct entities. This 
separation allows the construction of a hierarchy in which information is 
given the dominant position and materiality runs a distant second. As 
though we had learned nothing from Derrida about supplernentarity, em- 
bodiment continues to be discussed as if it were a supplement to be purged 
from the dominant term of information, an accident of evolution we are 
now in a position to correct. 

It is this materiality/information separation that I want to contest — not 
the cellular automata model, information theory, or a host of related theo- 
ries in themselves. My strategy is to complicate the leap from embodied re- 
ality to abstract information by pointing to moments when the assumptions 
involved in this move were contested by other researchers in the field and 
so became especially visible. The point of highlighting such moments is to 
make clear how much had to be erased to arrive at such abstractions as bod- 
iless information. Abstraction is of course an essential component in all 
theorizing, for no theory can account for the infinite multiplicity of our in- 
teractions with the real. But when we make moves that erase the world’s 
multiplicity, we risk losing sight of the variegated leaves, fractal branchings, 
and particular bark textures that make up the forest. In the pages that fol- 
low, I will identify two moves in particular that played important roles in 
constructing the information/materiality hierarchy. Irreverently, I think of 
them as the Platonic backhand and forehand. 

The Platonic backhand works by inferring from the worlds noisy multi- 
plicity a simplified abstraction. So far so good: this is what theorizing should 
do. The problem comes when the move circles around to constitute the ab- 
straction as the originary form from which the world’s multiplicity derives. 
Then complexity appears as a “fuzzing up” of an essential reality rather than as 
a manifestation of the world s holistic nature. Whereas the Platonic backhand 
has a history dating back to the Greeks, the Platonic forehand is more recent. 
To reach fully developed form , it required the assistance of powerful comput- 
ers. This move starts from simplified abstractions and, using simulation tech- 
niques such as genetic algorithms, evolves a multiplicity sufficiently complex 
that it can be seen as a world of its own. The two moves thus make their play in 

Toward Embodied Virtuality / 13 

opposite directions. The backhand goes from noisy multiplicity to reductive 
simplicity, whereas the forehand swings from simplicity to mulilicity. They 
share a common ideology — privileging the abstract as the Real and down- 
playing the importance of material instantiation. When they work together, 
they lay the groundwork for a new variation on an ancient game, in which dis- 
embodied information becomes the ultimate Platonic Form. If we can cap- 
ture the Form of ones and zeros in a nonbiological medium — say, on a 
computer disk — why do we need the body’s superfluous flesh? 

Whether the enabling assumptions for this conception of information 
occur in information theory, cybernetics, or popular science books such as 
Mind Children, their appeal is clear. Information viewed as pattern and not 
tied to a particular instantiation is information free to travel across time and 
space. Hackers are not the only ones who believe that information wants to 
be free. The great dream and promise of information is that it can be free 
from the material constraints that govern the mortal world. Marvin Minsk ) 7 
precisely expressed this dream when, in a recent lecture, he suggested it 
will soon be possible to extract human memories from the brain and import 
them, intact and unchanged, to computer disks . 23 The clear implication is 
that ifwe can become the information we have constructed, we can achieve 
effective immortality. 

In the face of such a powerful dream , it can be a shock to remember that 
for information to exist, it must always be instantiated in a medium, 
whether that medium is the page from the Bell Laboratories Journal on 
which Shannons equations are printed, the computer-generated topologi- 
cal maps used by the Human Genome Project, or the cathode ray tube on 
which virtual worlds are imaged. The point is not only that abstracting in- 
formation from a material base is an imaginary act but also, and more fun- 
damentally, that conceiving of information as a thing separate from the 
medium instantiating it is a prior imaginary act that constructs a holistic 
phenomenon as an information/matter duality . 24 

The chapters that follow will show what had to be elided, suppressed, 
and forgotten to make information lose its bod ) 7 This book is a “rememory” 
in the sense of Toni Morrisons Beloved-, putting back together parts that 
have lost touch with one another and reaching out toward a complexity too 
unruly to lit into disembodied ones and zeros. 

Seriation, Skeuomorphs, and Conceptual Constellations 

The foregoing leads to a strategic definition of “virtuality.” Virtuality is the 
cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by informa- 

14 / Chapter One 

tion patterns. The definition plays off the duality at the heart of the condi- 
tion of virtuality — materiality 7 on the one hand, information on the other. 
Normally virtuality 7 is associated with computer simulations that put the 
body into a feedback loop with a computer-generated image. For example, 
in virtual Ping-Pong, one swings a paddle wired into a computer, which cal- 
culates from the paddle s momentum and position w'here the ball would go. 
Instead of hitting a real ball, the player makes the appropriate motions with 
the paddle and watches the image of the ball on a computer monitor. Thus 
the game takes place partly in real life ( RL) and partly in virtual reality ( VR ) . 
Virtual reality' technologies are fascinating because they make visually im- 
mediate the perception that a world of information exists parallel to the 
“real” world, the former intersecting the latter at many points and in many 
w 7 ays. Hence the definitions strategic quality, strategic because it seeks to 
connect virtual technologies with the sense, pervasive in the late twentieth 
century, that all material objects are interpenetrated by flows of informa- 
tion, from DNA code to the global reach of the World Wide Web. 

Seeing the world as an interplay between informational patterns and 
material objects is a historically specific construction that emerged in the 
w 7 ake ofWorld War II. 25 By 1948, the distinction had coalesced sufficiently 
for Wiener to articulate it as a criterion that any adequate theory of materi- 
ality w 7 ould be forced to meet. “Information is information, not matter or 
energy. N o materialism which does not admit this can survive at the present 
day.” 26 Wiener knew as well as anyone else that to succeed, this conception 
of information required artifacts that could embody it and make it real. 
When I say virtuality 7 is a cultural perception, I do not mean that it is merely 
a psychological phenomenon . It is instantiated in an array of powerful tech- 
nologies. The perception of virtuality facilitates the development of virtual 
technologies, and the technologies reinforce the perception. 

The feedback loops that run between technologies and perceptions, ar- 
tifacts and ideas, have important implications for how 7 historical change oc- 
curs. The development of cybernetics followed neither a Kuhnian model of 
incommensurable paradigms nor a Foucauldian model of sharp epistemic 
breaks. 27 In the history 7 of cybernetics, ideas were rarely made up out of 
whole cloth. Rather, they 7 were fabricated in a pattern of overlapping repli- 
cation and innovation, a pattern that I call “seriation” (a term appropriated 
from archaeological anthropology). A brief explanation may clarify this 
concept. Within archaeological anthropology 7 , changes in artifacts are cus- 
tomarily 7 mapped through seriation charts. One constructs a seriation chart 
by parsing an artifact as a set of attributes that change over time. Suppose a 
researcher w 7 ants to construct a seriation chart for lamps. A key attribute is 

Toward Embodied Virtuality / 15 

the element that gives offlight. The first lamps, dating from thousands of 
years ago, used wieks for this element. Later, with the discovery of electric- 
ity, wicks gave way to filaments. The figures that customarily emerge from 
this kind of analysis are shaped like a tiger s iris — narrow at the top when an 
attribute first begins to be introduced, with a bulge in the middle during the 
heyday of the attribute, and tapered off at the bottom as the shift to a new 
model is completed. On a seriation chart for lamps, a line drawn at 1890 
would show the figure for wicks waxing large with the figure for filaments 
intersected at the narrow tip of the top end. Fifty years later, the wick figure 
would be tapering off, and the filament figure would be widening into its 
middle section. Considered as a set, the figures depicting changes in the at- 
tributes of an artifact reveal patterns of overlapping innovation and replica- 
tion. Some attributes change from one model to the next, but others remain 
the same. 

As figure 1 illustrates, the conceptual shifts that took place during the 
development of cybernetics display a seriated pattern reminiscent of mate- 
rial changes in artifacts. Conceptual fields evolve similarly to material cul- 
ture, in part because concept and artifact engage each other in continuous 
feedback loops. An artifact materially expresses the concept it embodies, 
but the process of its construction is far from passive. A glitch has to be 
fixed, a material exhibits unexpected properties, an emergent behavior sur- 
faces— any of these challenges can give rise to a new concept, which results 
in another generation of artifact, which leads to the development of still 
other concepts. The reasoning suggests that we should be able to trace the 
development of a conceptual field by using a seriation chart analogous to 
the seriation charts used for artifacts. 

In the course of the Macy Conferences, certain ideas came to be associ- 
ated with each other. Through a cumulative process that continued across 
several years of discussions, these ideas were seen as mutually entailing 
each other until, like love and marriage, they were viewed by the partici- 
pants as naturally going together. Such a constellation is the conceptual en- 
tity' corresponding to an artifact, possessing an internal coherence that 
defines it as an operational unit. Its formation marks the beginning of a pe- 
riod; its disassembly and reconstruction signal the transition to a different 
period. Indeed, periods are recognizable as such largely because constel- 
lations possess this coherence. Rarely is a constellation discarded whole- 
sale. Rather, some of the ideas composing it are discarded, others are 
modified, and new ones are introduced. Like the attributes composing an 
artifact, the ideas in a constellation change in a patchwork pattern of old 
and new. 

figure 1 The three waves or cybernetics 

Toward Embodied Virtuality / 17 

Here I want to introduce another term from archaeological anthropol- 
ogy. A skeuomorph is a design feature that is no longer functional in itself 
but that refers back to a feature that was functional at an earlier time. The 
dashboard of my Toyota Camry, for example, is covered by vinyl molded to 
simulate stitching. The simulated stitching alludes back to a fabric that was 
in fact stitched, although the vinyl “stitching” is formed by an injection 
mold. Skeuomorphs visibly testify to the social or psychological necessity 
for innovation to be tempered by replication. Like anachronisms, their pe- 
jorative first cousins, skeuomorphs are not unusual. On the contrary, they 
are so deeply characteristic of the evolution of concepts and artifacts that it 
takes a great deal of conscious effort to avoid them. At SIGGRAPH, the 
annual computer trade show where dealers come to hawk their wares, hard 
and soft, there are almost as many skeuomorphs as morphs. 

The complex psychological functions a skeuomorph performs can be 
illustrated by an installation exhibited at SIGGRAPH ’93. Called the 
“Catholic Turing Test,” the simulation invited the viewer to make a confes- 
sion by choosing selections from the video screen; it even had a bench on 
which the viewer could kneel. 28 On one level, the installation alluded to the 
triumph of science over religion , for the role of divinely authorized interro- 
gation and absolution had been taken over by a machine algorithm. On an- 
other level, the installation pointed to the intransigence of conditioned 
behavior, for the machine s form and function were determined by its reli- 
gious predecessor. Like a Janus figure, the skeuomorph looks to past and 
future, simultaneously reinforcing and undermining both. It calls into a 
play a psychodynamic that finds the new more acceptable when it recalls 
the old that it is in the process of displacing and finds the traditional more 
comfortable when it is presented in a context that reminds us we can escape 
from it into the new. 

In the history' of cybernetics, skeuomorphs acted as threshold devices, 
smoothing the transition between one conceptual constellation and an- 
other. Homeostasis, a foundational concept during the first wave, func- 
tioned during the second wave as a skeuomorph. Although homeostasis 
remained an important concept in biology, by about 1960 it had ceased to 
be an initiating premise in cybernetics. Instead, it performed the work of a 
gesture or an allusion used to authenticate new elements in the emerging 
constellation of reflexivity. At the same time, it also exerted an inertial pull 
on the new elements, limiting how radically they could transform the con- 

A similar phenomenon appears in the transition from the second to the 
third wave. Reflexivity, the key 7 concept of the second wave, is displaced in 

1 8 / Chapter One 

the third wave by emergence. Like homeostasis, reflexivity does not alto- 
gether disappear but lingers on as an allusion that authenticates new ele- 
ments. It performs a more complex role than mere nostalgia, however, for 
it also leaves its imprint on the new constellation of virtuality. The complex 
story formed by these seriated changes is told in chapters 3, 6, and 9, which 
discuss cybernetics, autopoiesis, and artificial life, respectively. 

I have already suggested that living in a condition of virtuality implies we 
participate in the cultural perception that information and materiality are 
conceptually distinct and that information is in some sense more essential, 
more important, and more fundamental than materiality 7 . The preamble to 
“A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age,” a document coauthored by Alvin 
Toffler at the behest of Newt Gingrich, concisely sums up the matter by 
proclaiming, “The central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of 
matter.” 29 To see how this view began to acquire momentum, let us briefly 
flash back to 1948 when Claude Shannon, a brilliant theorist working at 
Bell Laboratories, defined a mathematical quantity 7 he called information 
and proved several important theorems concerning it. 30 

Information Theory 7 and Everyday Life 

Shannon’s theory defines information as a probability function with no di- 
mensions, no materiality, and no necessary 7 connection with meaning. It is a 
pattern, not a presence. (Chapter 3 talks about the development of infor- 
mation theory 7 in more detail, and the relevant equations can be found 
there.) The theory makes a strong distinction between message and signal, 
Lacan to the contrary, a message does not always arrive at its destination. In 
information theoretic terms, no message is ever sent. What is sent is a sig- 
nal. Only when the message is encoded in a signal for transmission through 
a medium — for example, when ink is printed on paper or when electrical 
pulses are sent racing along telegraph wires — does it assume material 
form. The very definition of “information,” then, encodes tire distinction 
between materiality and information that was also becoming important in 
molecular biology during this period. 31 

Why 7 did Shannon define information as a pattern? The transcripts of the 
Macy Conferences indicate that the choice was driven by the twin engines 
of reliable quantification and theoretical generality. As we shall see in chap- 
ter 3, Shannons formulation was not the only proposal on the table. Donald 
MacKay, a British researcher, argued for an alternative definition that 
linked information with change in a receivers mindset and thus with 
meaning. 32 To be workable, MacKay s definition required that psychologi- 

Toward Embodied Virtuality / <9 

cal states be quantifiable and measurable — an accomplishment that only 
now appears distantly possible with such imaging technologies as positron- 
emission tomography and that certainly was not in reach in the immediate 
post- World War II years. It is no mystery why Shannon’s definition rather 
than MacKay’s became the industry standard. 

Shannons approach had other advantages that turned out to incur large 
(and mounting) costs when his premise interacted with certain predisposi- 
tions already at work within the culture. Abstracting information from a 
material base meant that information could become free-floating, unaf- 
fected by changes in context. The technical leverage this move gained was 
considerable, for by formalizing information into a mathematical function, 
Shannon was able to develop theorems, powerful in their generality, that 
hold true regardless of the medium in which the information is instanti- 
ated. Not everyone agreed this move was a good idea, however, despite its 
theoretical power. As Carolyn Marvin notes, a decontextualized construc- 
tion of information has important ideological implications, including 
an Anglo-American ethnocentrism that regards digital information as 
more important than more context -bound analog information , 33 Even in 
Shannon’s day, malcontents grumbled that divorcing information from 
context and thus from meaning had made the theory’ so narrowly formal- 
ized that it was not useful as a general theory of communication. Shannon 
himself frequently cautioned that the theory' was meant to apply only to 
certain technical situations, not to communication in general . 34 In other 
circumstances, the theory' might have become a dead end, a victim of its 
own excessive formalization and decontextualization. But not in the 
post- World War II era. The time was ripe for theories that reified informa- 
tion into a free-floating, decontextualized, quantifiable entity' that could 
serve as the master key unlocking secrets of life and death. 

Technical artifacts help to make an information theoretic view a part of 
everyday life. From ATMs to the Internet, from the morphing programs 
used in Terminator II to the sophisticated visualization programs used to 
guide microsurgeries, information is increasingly perceived as interpene- 
trating material forms. Especially for users who may not know the material 
processes involved, the impression is created that pattern is predominant 
over presence. From here it is a small step to perceiving information as 
more mobile, more important, more essential than material forms. When 
this impression becomes part of your cultural mindset, you have entered 
the condition of virtuality. 

U.S. culture at present is in a highly heterogeneous state regarding the 
condition of virtuality. Some high-tech preserves (elite research centers 

20 / Chapter One 

such as Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and Bell Laboratories, most ma- 
jor research universities, and hundreds of corporations) have so thoroughly 
incorporated virtual technologies into their infrastructures that informa- 
tion is as much as part of the researchers’ mindscapes as is electric lighting 
or synthetic plastics. 35 The thirty million Americans who are plugged into 
the Internet increasingly engage in virtual experiences enacting a division 
between the material body that exits on one side of the screen and the com- 
puter simulacra that seem to create a space inside the screen. 36 Yet for mil- 
lions more, virtuality is not even a cloud on the horizon of their everyday 
worlds. Within a global context, the experience of virtuality becomes more 
exotic by several orders of magnitude. It is a useful corrective to remember 
that 70 percent of the world’s population has never made a telephone call. 

Nevertheless, I think it is a mistake to underestimate the importance of 
virtuality, for it wields an influence altogether disproportionate to the num- 
ber of people immersed in it. It is no accident that the condition of virtual- 
ity is most pervasive and advanced where the centers of power are most 
concentrated. Theorists at the Pentagon, for example, see it as the theater 
in which future wars will be fought. They argue that coming conflicts will be 
decided not so much by overwhelming force as by “neocortical warfare,” 
waged through the techno-sciences of information. 37 If we want to contest 
what these technologies signify, we need histories that show the erasures 
that went into creating the condition of virtuality, as well as visions arguing 
for the importance of embodiment. Once we understand the complex in- 
terplays that went into creating the condition ofvirtuality, we can demystify 
our progress toward virtuality and see it as the result of historically specific 
negotiations rather than of the irresistible force of technological determin- 
ism. At the same time, we can acquire resources with which to rethink the 
assumptions underlying virtuality, and we can recover a sense of the virtual 
that fully recognizes the importance of the embodied processes constitut- 
ing the lifeworld of human beings. 38 In the phrase “virtual bodies,” I intend 
to allude to the historical separation between information and materiality 
and also to recall the embodied processes that resist this division. 

Virtuality and Contemporary Literature 

I have already suggested that one way to think about the organization of this 
book is chronologically, since it follows the three waves of seriated changes 
in cybernetics. In this organization of the textual body, each of the three 
chronologically arranged divisions has an anchoring chapter discussing the 
scientific theories: on the Macy Conferences (chapter 3); on autopoiesis 

Toward Embodied Virtuality / 2 1 

(chapter 6); and on artificial life (chapter 9), respectively. Each section also 
has a chapter showing specific applications of the theories: the work of 
Norbert Wiener (chapter 4); tape-recording technologies (chapter 8); and 
human-computer interactions (chapter 10). Also included in each of the 
three divisions are chapters on literary texts contemporaneous with the 
development of the scientific theories and cybernetic technologies (chap- 
ters 5, 7, and 10). I have selected literary texts that were clearly influenced 
by the development of cybernetics. Nevertheless, I want to resist the idea 
that influence flows from science into literature. The cross-currents are 
considerably more complex than a one-way model of influence would al- 
low. In the Neuromancer trilogy, for example, William Gibsons vision of 
cyberspace had a considerable effect on the development of three-dimen- 
sional virtual reality 7 imaging software. 39 

A second way to think about the organization of How We Became 
Posthuman is narratively. In this arrangement, the three divisions proceed 
not so much through chronological progression as through the narrative 
strands about the (lost) body of information, the cyborg body, and the 
posthuman body. Here the literary texts play a central role, for they display 
the passageways that enabled stories coming out of narrowly focused scien- 
tific theories to circulate more widely through the body politic. Many of the 
scientists understood very well that their negotiations involved premises 
broader than the formal scope of their theories strictly allowed. Because of 
the wedge that has been driven between science and values in U.S. culture, 
their statements on these wider implications necessarily occupied the posi- 
tion of ad hoc pronouncements rather than “scientific” arguments. Shaped 
by different conventions, the literary texts range across a spectrum of issues 
that the scientific texts only fitfully illuminate, including the ethical and cul- 
tural implications of cybernetic technologies. 40 

Literary' texts are not, of course, merely passive conduits. They actively 
shape what the technologies mean and what the scientific theories signify 
in cultural contexts. They also embody assumptions similar to those that 
permeated the scientific theories at critical points. These assumptions in- 
cluded the idea that stability is a desirable social goal, that human beings 
and human social organizations are self-organizing structures, and that 
form is more essential than matter. The scientific theories used these as- 
sumptions as enabling presuppositions that helped to guide inquiry and 
shape research agendas. As the chapters on the scientific developments 
will show, culture circulates through science no less than science circulates 
through culture. The heart that keeps this circulatory 7 system flowing is 
narrative — narratives about culture, narratives within culture, narratives 

22 / Chapter One 

about science, narratives within science. In my account of the scientific de- 
velopments, I have sought to emphasize the role that narrative plays in 
articulating the posthuman as a technical-cultural concept. For example, 
chapter 4, on Wieners scientific work, is interlaced with analyses of the nar- 
ratives he tells to resolve conflicts between cybernetics and liberal human- 
ism, and chapter 9, on artificial life, is organized by looking at this area of 
research as a narrative field. 

What does this emphasis on narrative have to do with virtual bodies? 
Following Jean-Franyois Lyotard, many theorists of postmodemity accept 
that the postmodern condition implies an incredulity toward metanarra- 
tive. 41 As we have seen, one way to construct virtuality is the way that 
Moravec and Minsky do — as a metanarrative about the transformation of 
the human into a disembodied posthuman. I think we should be skeptical 
about this metanarrative. To contest it, I want to use the resources of narra- 
tive itself, particularly its resistance to various forms of abstraction and dis- 
embodiment. With its chronological thrust, polymorphous digressions, 
located actions, and personified agents, narrative is a more embodied form 
of discourse than is analytically driven systems theory. By turning the tech- 
nological determinism of bodiless information, the cyborg, and the post- 
human into narratives about the negotiations that took place between 
particular people at particular times and places, I hope to replace a teleol- 
ogy of disembodiment with historically contingent stories about contests 
between competing factions, contests whose outcomes were far from obvi- 
ous. Many factors affected the outcomes, from the needs of emerging tech- 
nologies for reliable quantification to the personalities of the people 
involved. Though overdetermined, the disembodiment of information was 
not inevitable, any more than it is inevitable we continue to accept the idea 
that we are essentially informational patterns. 

In this regard, the literary texts do more than explore the cultural impli- 
cations of scientific theories and technological artifacts. Embedding ideas 
and artifacts in the situated specificities of narrative, the literary texts give 
these ideas and artifacts a local habitation and a name through discursive 
formulations whose effects are specific to that textual body. In exploring 
these effects, I want to demonstrate, on multiple levels and in many ways, 
that abstract pattern can never fully capture the embodied actuality, unless 
it is as prolix and noisy as the body itself. Shifting the emphasis from tech- 
nological determinism to competing, contingent, embodied narratives 
about the scientific developments is one way to liberate the resources of 
narrative so that they work against the grain of abstraction running through 
the teleology of disembodiment. Another way is to read literary texts along- 

Toward Embodied Virtuality / 23 

side scientific theories. In articulating the connections that run through 
these two discursive realms, I want to entangle abstract form and material 
particularity such that the reader will find it increasingly difficult to main- 
tain the perception that they are separate and discrete entities. If, for cul- 
tural and historical reasons, I cannot start from a holistic perspective, I 
hope to mix things up enough so that the emphasis falls not on the separa- 
tion of matter and information but on their inextricably complex com- 
poundings and entwinings. For this project, the literary texts with their 
fashionings of embodied particularities are crucial. 

The first literary text I discuss in detail is Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo. 42 Writ- 
ten in the 1950s, Limbo has become something of an underground classic. 
It imagines a postwar society in which an ideology 7 , Immob, has developed; 
the ideology equates aggression with the ability to move. “Pacifism equals 
passivity,” Immob slogans declare. True believers volunteer to banish their 
mobility (and presumably their aggression) by having amputations, which 
have come to be regarded as signifiers of social power and influence. These 
amputees get bored with lying around, however, so a vigorous cybernetics 
industry has grown up to replace their missing limbs. As this brief summary 
suggests. Limbo is deeply influenced by cybernetics. But the technical 
achievements of cybernetics are not at the center of the text. Rather, they 
serve as a springboard to explore a variety of social, political, and psycho- 
logical issues, ranging from the perceived threat that women’s active sexu- 
ality poses for Immob men to global East-West tensions that explode into 
another world war at the end of the text. Although it is unusually didactic. 
Limbo does more than discuss cybernetics; it engages a full range of rhetor- 
ical and narrative devices that work both with and against its explicit pro- 
nouncements . The narrator seems only partially able to control his verbally 
extravagant narrative. There are, I will argue, deep connections between 
the narrator’s struggle to maintain control of the narrative and the threat 
to “natural” body boundaries posed by the cybernetic paradigm. Limbo in- 
terrogates a dynamic that also appears in Norbert Wiener’s work — the in- 
tense anxiety that erupts when the perceived boundaries of the body are 
breached. In addition, it illustrates how the body of the text gets implicated 
in the processes used to represent bodies within the text. 

Several Philip K. Dick novels written from 1962 to 1966 (including 
We Can Build You, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dr. Blood- 
money, and Ubik) provide another set of texts through which the multiple 
implications of the posthuman can be explored. 43 Chronologically and the- 
matically, Dick’s novels of simulation cross the scientific theory 7 of au- 
topoiesis. Like Maturana, Varela, and other scientific researchers in the 

24 / Chapter One 

second wave of cybernetics, Dick is intensely concerned with epistemolog- 
ical questions and their relation to the cybernetic paradigm. The problem 
of where to locate the observer — in or out of the system being observed? — 
is conflated in his fiction with how to determine whether a creature is an- 
droid or human. For Dick, the android is deeply bound up with the gender 
politics of his male protagonists’ relations with female characters, who am- 
biguously figure either as sympathetic, life-giving “dark-haired girls” or 
emotionally cold, life-threatening schizoid women. Already fascinated 
with epistemological questions that reveal how shaky our constructions of 
reality can be, Dick is drawn to cybernetic themes because he understands 
that cybernetics radically destabilizes the ontological foundations of what 
counts as human. The gender politics he writes into his novels illustrate the 
potent connections between cybernetics and contemporary understand- 
ings of race, gender, and sexuality. 

The chapter on contemporary speculative fictions constructs a semiotics 
of virtuality by showing how the central concepts of information and materi- 
ality can be mapped onto a multilayered semiotic square. The tutor texts for 
this analysis, which include Snow Crash , Blood Music, Galatea 2.2, and Ter- 
minal Games, indicate the range of what counts as the posthuman in the age 
of virtuality, from neural nets to hackers, biologically modified humans, and 
entities who live only in computer simulations. 44 In following the construc- 
tion of the posthuman in these texts, I will argue that older ideas are rein- 
scribed as well as contested. As was the case for the scientific models, change 
occurs in a seriated pattern of overlapping innovation and replication. 

I hope that this book will demonstrate, once again, how crucial it is to 
recognize interrelations between different kinds of cultural productions, 
specifically literature and science. The stories I tell here — how informa- 
tion lost its body, how the cyborg was created as a cultural icon and techno- 
logical artifact, and how humans became posthumans — and the waves of 
historical change I chart would not have the same resonance or breadth if 
they had been pursued only through literary texts or only through scientific 
discourses. The scientific texts often reveal, as literature cannot, the foun- 
dational assumptions that gave theoretical scope and artifactual efficacy to 
a particular approach. The literary texts often reveal, as scientific work can- 
not, the complex cultural, social, and representational issues tied up with 
conceptual shifts and technological innovations . F rom my point of view, lit- 
erature and science as an area of specialization is more than a subset of cul- 
tural studies or a minor activity in a literature department. It is a way of 
understanding ourselves as embodied creatures living within and through 
embodied worlds and embodied words. 

Chap' e r Two. 


We might regard patterning or predictability as the very essence and raison d'etre of 
communication . . . communication is the creation of redundancy or patterning. 

Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind 

The development of information theory in the wake of World War II left as 
its legacy a conundrum: even though information provides the basis for 
much of contemporary U.S, society, it has been constnicted never to be 
present in itself. In information theoretic terms, as we saw in chapter 1, 
information is conceptually distinct from the markers that embody it, for 
example newsprint or electromagnetic waves. It is a pattern rather than a 
presence, defined by the probability distribution of the coding elements 
composing the message. If information is pattern, then noninformation 
should be the absence of pattern, that is, randomness. This commonsense 
expectation ran into unexpected complications when certain devel- 
opments within information theory implied that information could be 
equated with randomness as well as with pattern . 1 Identifying information 
with both pattern and randomness proved to be a powerful paradox, lead- 
ing to the realization that in some instances, an infusion of noise into a sys- 
tem can cause it to reorganize at a higher level of complexity. 2 Within such 
a system, pattern and randomness are bound together in a complex dialec- 
tic that makes them not so much opposites as complements or supplements 
to one another. Each helps to define the other; each contributes to the flow 
of information through the system. 

Were this dialectical relation only an aspect of the formal theory, its im- 
pact might well be limited to the problems of maximizing channel utility 
and minimizing noise that concern electrical engineers. Through the de- 
velopment of information technologies, however, the interplay between 
pattern and randomness became a feature of everyday life. As Friedrich 
Kittler has demonstrated in Discourse Networks 1800/1900, media come 
into existence when technologies of inscription intervene between the 
hand gripping the pen or the mouth framing the sounds and the production 

2 5 

26 / Chapter Two 

of the texts. In a literal sense, technologies of inscription are media when 
they are perceived as mediating, inserting themselves into the chain of tex- 
tual production. Kittler identifies the innovative characteristics of the type- 
writer, originally designed for the blind, not with speed but rather with 
“spatially designated and discrete signs,” along with a corresponding shift 
from the word as flowing image to the word “as a geometrical figure created 
by the spatial arrangements of the letter keys” (here Kittler quotes Richard 
Herbertz ). 3 The emphasis on spatially fixed and geometrically arranged 
letters is significant, for it points to the physicality of the processes involved. 
Typewriter keys are directly proportionate to the script they produce. One 
keystroke yields one letter, and striking the key harder produces a darker 
letter. The system lends itself to a signification model that links signifier to 
signified in direct correspondence, for there is a one-to-one relation be- 
tween the key and the letter it produces. Moreover, the signifier itself is 
spatially discrete, durably inscribed, and flat. 

How does this experience change with electronic media? The relation 
between striking a key and producing text with a computer is very different 
from the relation achieved with a typewriter. Display brightness is unre- 
lated to keystroke pressure, and striking a single key can effect massive 
changes in the entire text. The computer restores and heightens the sense 
of word as image — an image drawn in a medium as fluid and changeable as 
water . 4 Interacting with electronic images rather than with a materially re- 
sistant text, I absorb through my fingers as well as my mind a model of sig- 
nification in which no simple one-to-one correspondence exists between 
signifier and signified. I know kinesthetically as well as conceptually that 
the text can be manipulated in ways that would be impossible if it existed as 
a material object rather than a visual display. As I work with the text-as- 
flickering-image, I instantiate within my body the habitual patterns of 
movement that make pattern and randomness more real, more relevant, 
and more powerful than presence and absence. 

The technologies of virtual reality, with their potential for full-body me- 
diation, further illustrate the kind of phenomena that foreground pattern 
and randomness and make presence and absence seem irrelevant. Already 
an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars, virtual reality puts the 
user’s sensory system into a direct feedback loop with a computer . 5 In one 
version, the user wears a stereovision helmet and a body glove with sensors 
at joint positions. The user’s movements are reproduced by a simulacrum, 
called an avatar, on the computer screen. When the user turns his or her 
head, the computer display changes in a corresponding fashion. At the 
same time, audiophones create a three-dimensional sound field. Kines- 

Virtual Bodies and Flickering S i g n i f i e r / 27 

thetic sensations, such as G-loads for flight simulators, can be supplied 
through more extensive and elaborate body coverings. The result is a mul- 
tisensory interaction that creates the illusion that the user is inside the com- 
puter. From my experience with the virtual reality simulations at the 
Human Interface Technolog)' Laboratory and elsewhere, I can attest to the 
disorienting, exhilarating effect of the feeling that subjectivity is dispersed 
throughout the cybernetic circuit. In these systems, the user learns, kines- 
theticallyandproprioceptively, that the relev ant boundaries for interaction 
are defined less by the skin than by the feedback loops connecting body and 
simulation in a technobio-integrated circuit. 

Questions about presence and absence do not yield much leverage in 
this situation, for the avatar both is and is not present, just as the user both 
is and is not inside the screen. Instead, the focus shifts to questions about 
pattern and randomness. What transformations govern the connections 
between user and avatar? What parameters control the construction of the 
screen world? What patterns can the user discover through interaction 
with the system? Where do these patterns fade into randomness? What 
stimuli cannot be encoded within the system and therefore exist only as ex- 
traneous noise? When and how does this noise coalesce into pattern? 
Working from a different theoretical framework, Allucquere Roseanne 
Stone has proposed that one need not enter virtual reality to encounter 
these questions, although VR brings them vividly into the foreground. 
Merely communicating by email or participating in a text-based MUD 
(multi-user dungeon) already problematizes thinking of the body as a self- 
evident physicality . 6 In the face of such technologies. Stone proposes that 
we think of subjectivity as a multiple warranted by the body rather than 
contained within it. Sherry Turkle, in her fascinating work on people who 
spend serious time in MUDs, convincingly shows that virtual technologies, 
in a riptide of reverse influence, affect how real life is seen. “Reality' is not 
my best window,” one of her respondents remarks. ' 

In societies enmeshed within information networks, as the U.S. and 
other first world societies are, these examples can be multiplied a thou- 
sandfold. Money is increasingly experienced as informational patterns 
stored in computer banks rather than as the presence of cash; surrogacy 
and in vitro fertilization court cases offer examples of informational genetic 
patterns competing with physical presence for the right to determine the 
“legitimate” parent; automated factories are controlled by programs that 
constitute the physical realities of work assignments and production sched- 
ules as flows of information through the system ; 8 criminals are tied to crime 
scenes through DNA patterns rather than through eyewitness accounts 

28 / Chapter Two 

verifying their presence; access to computer networks rather than physical 
possession of data determines nine-tenths of computer law ; 9 sexual rela- 
tionships are pursued through the virtual spaces of computer networks 
rather than through meetings at which the participants are physically pre- 
sent. 10 The effect of these transformations is to create a highly heteroge- 
neous and fissured space in which discursive formations based on pattern 
and randomness jostle and compete with formations based on presence 
and absence. Given the long tradition of dominance that presence and ab- 
sence have enjoyed in the Western tradition, the surprise is not that forma- 
tions based on them continue to exist but that these formations are being 
displaced so rapidly across a wide range of cultural sites. 

These examples, taken from studies of information technologies, illus- 
trate concerns that are also appropriate for literary texts. If the effects that 
the shift toward pattern/randomness has on literature are not widely rec- 
ognized, perhaps it is because they are at once pervasive and elusive. A 
book produced by typesetting may look very similar to one generated by a 
computerized program, but the technological processes involved in this 
transformation are not neutral. Different technologies of text production 
suggest different models of signification; changes in signification are linked 
with shifts in consumption; shifting patterns of consumption initiate new 
experiences of embodiment; and embodied experience interacts with 
codes of representation to generate new kinds of textual worlds . 11 In fact, 
each category — production, signification, consumption, bodily experi- 
ence, and representation — is in constant feedback and feedforward loops 
with the others. 

As the emphasis shifts to pattern and randomness, characteristics of 
print texts that used to be transparent (because they were so pervasive) are 
becoming visible again through their differences from digital textuality. We 
lose the opportunity to understand the implications of these shifts if we 
mistake the dominance of pattem/randomness for the disappearance of 
the material world. In fact, it is precisely because material interfaces have 
changed that pattern and randomness can be perceived as dominant over 
presence and absence. The pattem/randomness dialectic does not erase 
the material world; information in fact derives its efficacy from the mater- 
ial infrastructures it appears to obscure. This illusion of erasure should be 
the subject of inquiry, not a presupposition that inquiry takes for granted. 

To explore the importance of the medium’s materiality, let us consider 
the book. Like the human body, the book is a form of information transmis- 
sion and storage, and like the human body, the book incorporates its en- 
codings in a durable material substrate. Once encoding in the material base 

Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifier / 2 9 

has taken place, it cannot easily be changed. Print and proteins in this sense 
have more in common with each other than with magnetic encodings, 
which can be erased and rewritten simply by changing the polarities. (In 
chapter 8 we shall have an opportunity to see how a book’s self-representa- 
tions change when the bookis linked with magnetic encodings.) The print- 
ing metaphors pervasive in the discourse of genetics are constituted 
through and by this similarity of corporeal encoding in books and bodies. 

The entanglement of signal and materiality in bodies and books confers 
on them a parallel doubleness. As we have seen, the human body is under- 
stood in molecular biology simultaneously as an expression of genetic in- 
formation and as a physical structure. Similarly, the literary corpus is at 
once a physical object and a space of representation, a body and a message. 
Because they have bodies, books and humans have something to lose if they 
are regarded solely as informational patterns, namely the resistant materi- 
ality that has traditionally marked the durable inscription of books no less 
than it has marked our experiences of living as embodied creatures. From 
this affinity emerge complex feedback loops between contemporary litera- 
ture, the technologies that produce it, and the embodied readers who pro- 
duce and are produced by books and technologies. Changes in bodies as 
they are represented within literary texts have deep connections with 
changes in textual bodies as they are encoded within information media, 
and both types of changes stand in complex relation to changes in the 
construction of human bodies as they interface with information technolo- 
gies. The term I use to designate this network of relations is informatics. 
Following Donna Haraway, I take informatics to mean the technologies of 
information as well as the biological, social, linguistic, and cultural changes 
that initiate, accompany, and complicate their development. 12 

I am now in a position to state the thesis of this chapter explicitly. The 
contemporary pressure toward dematerialization, understood as an epis- 
temic shift toward pattern/randomness and away from presence/ absence, 
affects human and textual bodies on two levels at once, as a change in the 
body (the material substrate) and as a change in the message (the codes of 
representation). The connectivity between these changes is, as they say in 
the computer industry, massively parallel and highly interdigitated. My 
narrative will therefore weave back and forth between the represented 
worlds of contemporary fictions, models of signification implicit in word 
processing, embodied experience as it is constructed by interactions with 
information technologies, and the technologies themselves. 

The compounding of signal with materiality suggests that new technolo- 
gies will instantiate new models of signification. Information technologies 

3 o / Chapter Two 

do more than change modes of text production, storage, and dissemination. 
They fundamentally alter the relation of signified to signifier. Carrying the 
instabilities implicit in Lacanian floating signifiers one step further, infor- 
mation technologies create what I will ca.\\ flickering signifiers , character- 
ized by their tendency toward unexpected metamorphoses, attenuations, 
and dispersions. Flickering signifiers signal an important shift in the plate 
tectonics of language. Much of contemporary fiction is directly influenced 
by information technologies; cyberpunk, for example, takes informatics as 
its central theme. Even narratives without this focus can hardly avoid the 
rippling effects of informatics, however, for the changing modes of signifi- 
cation affect the codes as well as the subjects of representation. 

Signifying the Processes of Production 

“Language is not a code,” Lacan asserted, because he wanted to deny one- 
to-one correspondence between the signifier and the signified . 13 In word 
processing, however, language is a code. The relation between machine 
and compiler languages is specified by a coding arrangement, as is the rela- 
tion of the compiler language to the programming commands that the user 
manipulates. Through these multiple transformations, some quantity is 
conserved, but it is not the mechanical energy implicit in a system of levers 
or the molecular energy of a thermodynamical system. Rather it is the in- 
formational structure that emerges from the interplay between pattern 
and randomness. When a text presents itself as a constantly refreshed im- 
age rather than as a durable inscription, transformations can occur that 
would be unthinkable if matter or energy, rather than informational pat- 
terns, formed the primary basis for the systemic exchanges. This textual flu- 
idity, which users learn in their bodies as they interact with the system, 
implies that signifiers flicker rather than float. 

To explain what I mean by flickering signifiers, I will briefly review 
Lacan s notion of floating signifiers. Lacan, operating within a view of lan- 
guage that was primarily print-based rather than electronically mediated, 
not surprisingly focused on presence and absence as the dialectic of inter- 
est . 14 When he formulated the concept of floating signifiers, he drew on 
Saussure’s idea that signifiers are defined by networks of relational differ- 
ences between themselves rather than by their relation to signifieds. He 
complicated this picture by maintaining that signifieds do not exist in them- 
selves, except insofar as they are produced by signifiers. He imagined them 
as an ungraspable flow floating beneath a network of signifiers, a network 
that itself is constituted through continual slippages and displacements. 

Virtual Bodies an d Flickering Signifier / 3 / 

Thus, for him, a doubly reinforced absence is at the core of signification — 
the absence of signifieds as things-in-themselves as well as the absence of 
stable correspondences between signifiers. The catastrophe in psycholin- 
guistic development corresponding to this absence in signification is cas- 
tration, the moment when the (male) subject symbolically confronts the 
realization that subjectivity, like language, is founded on absence. 

How does this scenario change when floating signifiers give way to flick- 
ering signifiers? Foregrounding pattern and randomness, information 
technologies operate within a realm in which the signifier is opened to a 
rich internal play of difference. In informatics, the signifier can no longer 
be understood as a single marker, for example an ink markon apage. Rather 
it exists as a flexible chain of markers bound together by the arbitrary rela- 
tions specified by the relevant codes. As I write these words on my com- 
puter, I see the lights on the video screen, but for the computer, the relevant 
signifiers are electronic polarities on disks. Intervening between what I see 
and what the computer reads are the machine code that correlates al- 
phanumeric symbols with binary digits, the compiler language that corre- 
lates these symbols with higher-level instructions determining how the 
symbols are to be manipulated, the processing program that mediates be- 
tween these instructions and the commands I give the computer, and so 
forth. A signifier on one level becomes a signified on the next-higher level. 
Precisely because the relation between signifier and signified at each of 
these levels is arbitrary, it can be changed with a single global command. If 
I am producing ink marks by manipulating movable type, changing the font 
requires changing each line of type. By contrast, if I am producing flicker- 
ing signifiers on a video screen, changing the font is as easy as giving the sys- 
tem a single command. The longer the chain of codes, the more radical the 
transformations that can be effected. Acting as linguistic transducers, the 
coding chains impart astonishing power to even very small changes. Such 
amplification is possible because the constant reproduced through multi- 
ple coding layers is a pattern rather than a presence . 

Where does randomness enter this picture? Within information theory, 
information is identified with choices that reduce uncertainty, for example 
when I choose which book, out of eight on a reading list, my seminar will 
read for the first week of class. To get this information to the students, I 
need some way to transmit it. Information theory treats the communica- 
tion situation as a system in which a sender encodes a message and sends it 
as a signal through a channel. At the other end is a receiver, who decodes 
the signal and reconstitutes the message. Suppose I write my students an 
email. The computer encodes the message in binary digits and sends a sig- 

32 / Chapter Two 

nal corresponding to these digits to the server, which then reconstitutes the 
message in a form the students can read. At many points along this route, 
noise can intervene. The message maybe garbled by the computer system, 
so that it arrives looking like “®#e% A &s 0i> .” Or I may have gotten distracted 
thinking about DeLillo halfway through the message, so that although I 
meant to assign Calvino for the first week, the message comes out, “If on a 
winter’s night a white noise.” These examples indicate that for real-life 
communication situations, pattern exists in dynamic tension with the ran- 
dom intrusions of noise. 

Uncertainty enters in another sense as well. Although information is 
often defined as reducing uncertainty; it also depends on uncertainty. Sup- 
pose, for example. Gravity’s Rainboio is the only text on the reading list. 
The probability that I would choose it is I . If I send an email telling my 
students that the text for this week is Gravity’s Rainbow, they will learn 
nothing they did not already know, and no information is communicated. 
The most surprising information I could send them would be a string of 
random letters. (Remember that information in the technical sense has 
nothing to do with meaning; the fact that such a message would be mean- 
ingless is thus paradoxically irrelevant to calculating the amount of infor- 
mation it contains.) These intuitions are confirmed by the mathematical 
theory of information . 15 For an individual message, the information 
increases as the probability that the event will occur diminishes; the more 
unlikely the event, the more information it conveys. Appropriately, this 
quantity is usually called the “surprisal.” Let’s say that nine of my reading 
assignments were on Gravity’s Rainbow, and one was on Vineland. The 
students would gain more information from a message telling them that the 
assignment was Vineland than from a message stating that the assignment 
was Gravity’s Rainbow— the more probable event and hence the more ex- 
pected. Most of the time, however, electrical engineers are not interested 
in individual messages but in all the messages that can be produced from a 
given source. Thus they do not so much want to know the surprisal as the 
average amount of information coming from a source. This average 
reaches a maximum when it is equally likely that any symbol can appear in 
any position — which is to say, when there is no pattern or when the mes- 
sage is at the extreme of randomness . Thus Warren Weaver, in his interpre- 
tation of Shannon’s theory of information, suggested that information 
should be understood as depending on both predictability and unpre- 
dictability, pattern and randomness . 16 

What happens in the case of mutation? Consider the example of the ge- 
netic code. M utation normally occurs when some random event (for exam- 
ple, a burst of radiation or a coding error) disrupts an existing pattern and 

Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifier / 33 

something else is put in its place instead. Although mutation disrupts pat- 
tern, it also presupposes a morphological standard against which it can be 
measured and understood as a mutation. If there were only randomness, as 
with the random movements of gas molecules, it would make no sense to 
speak of mutation. We have seen that in electronic textuality, the possi- 
bilities for mutation within the text are enhanced and heightened by long 
coding chains. We can now understand mutation in more fundamental 
terms. Mutation is crucial because it names the bifurcation point at which 
the interplay between pattern and randomness causes the system to evolve 
in a new direction. It reveals the productive potential of randomness that is 
also recognized within information theory when uncertainty’ is seen as both 
antagonistic and intrinsic to information. 

We are now in a position to understand mutation as a decisive event in 
the psycholinguistics of information. Mutation is the catastrophe in the 
pattem/randomness dialectic analogous to castration in the presence/ab- 
sence dialectic. It marks a rupture of pattern so extreme that the expecta- 
tion of continuous replication can no longer be sustained. But as with 
castration, this only appears to be a disruption located at a specific moment. 
The randomness to which mutation testifies is implicit in the very idea of 
pattern, for only against the background of nonpattern can pattern emerge. 
Randomness is the contrasting term that allows pattern to be understood as 
such. The crisis named by mutation is as wide-ranging and pervasive in its 
import within the pattem/randomness dialectic as castration is within the 
tradition of presence/absence, for it is the visible mark that testifies to the 
continuing interplay of the dialectic between pattern and randomness, 
replication and variation, expectation and surprise. 

Shifting the emphasis from presence/absence to pattern/randomness 
suggests different choices for tutor texts. Rather than studying Freuds dis- 
cussion of “fort/da” (a short passage whose replication in hundreds of com- 
mentaries would no doubt astonish its creator), theorists interested in 
pattern and randomness might point to David Cronenberg’s film The Fly. 
At a certain point, the protagonist s penis does fall off (quaintly, he puts it in 
his medicine chest as a memento of times past), but the loss scarcely regis- 
ters in the larger mutation he is undergoing. The operative transition is not 
from male to female-as-castrated-male but from human to something rad- 
ically other than human. Flickering signification brings together language 
with a psychodynamics based on the symbolic moment when the human 
confronts the posthuman. 

As I indicated in chapter 1, 1 understand human and posthuman to be 
historically specific constructions that emerge from different configura- 
tions of embodiment, technology, and culture. My reference point for the 

34 / Chapter Two 

human is the tradition of liberal humanism; the posthuman appears when 
computation rather than possessive individualism is taken as the ground of 
being, a move that allows the posthuman to be seamlessly articulated with 
intelligent machines. To see how technology interacts with these construc- 
tions, consider the picture that nineteenth-century U.S. and British an- 
thropologists have drawn of “man” as a tool-user. 17 Using tools may shape 
the body (some anthropologists made this argument), but the tool never- 
theless is envisioned as an object that is apart from the body, an object that 
can be picked up and put down at will. When the claim that man s unique 
nature was defined by tool use could not be sustained (because other ani- 
mals were shown also to use tools), the focus shifted during the early twen- 
tieth century to man the tool-maker. Typical is Kenneth P. Oakley s 1949 
Man the Tool-Maker, a magisterial work with the authority of the British 
Museum behind it. Oakley, in charge of the Anthropological Section of the 
museums Natural History Division, wrote in his introduction, “Employ- 
ment of tools appears to be [man’s] chief biological characteristic, for con- 
sidered functionally they are detachable extensions of the forelimb.” 18 The 
kind of tool he envisioned was mechanical rather than informational; it 
goes with the hand, not on the head. Significantly, he imagined the tool to 
be at once “detachable” and an “extension,” separate from yet partaking of 
the hand. If the placement and the kind of tool mark Oakleys affinity with 
the epoch of the human, the construction of the tool as a prosthesis points 
forward to the posthuman. 

By the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan was speculating about the transforma- 
tion that media, understood as technological prostheses, were effecting on 
human beings. 19 He argued that humans react to stress in their envi- 
ronments by withdrawing the locus of selfhood inward, in a numbing 
withdrawal from the world he called (following Hans Selye and Adolphe 
Jonas) “autoamputation.” This withdrawal in turn facilitates and requires 
compensating technological extensions that project the body-as-prosthesis 
back out into the world. Whereas Oakley remains grounded in the human 
and looks only distantly toward the posthuman, McLuhan clearly sees that 
electronic media are capable of bringing about a reconfiguration so exten- 
sive as to change the nature of “man.” 

As we saw in chapter 1, similar shifts in orientation informed the Macy 
Conference discussions taking place during the same period (1946-53). 
Participants wavered between a vision of man as a homeostatic self- 
regulating mechanism whose boundaries were clearly delineated from the 
environment 20 and a more threatening, reflexive vision of a man spliced 
into an informational circuit that could change him in unpredictable ways. 

Virtual Bodies and Flickering S i g n i f i e r / 35 

By the 1960s, the consensus within cybernetics had shifted dramatically to- 
ward reflexivity. By the 1980s, the inertial pull ofhomeostasis as a constitu- 
tive concept had largely given way to self-organization theories implying 
that radical changes were possible within certain kinds of complex sys- 
tems. 21 In the contemporary period, the posthuman future of humanity is 
increasingly evoked, ranging from Hans Moravec s argument for a “postbi- 
ological” future in which intelligent machines become the dominant life 
form on the planet, to the more sedate and in part already realized prospect 
of a symbiotic union between human and intelligent machine, a union that 
Howard Rheingold calls “intelligence augmentation.” 22 Although these vi- 
sions differ in the degree and kind of interfaces they imagine, they concur 
that the posthuman implies not only a coupling with intelligent machines 
but a coupling so intense and multifaceted that it is no longer possible to 
distinguish meaningfully between the biological organism and the infor- 
mational circuits in which the organism is enmeshed. Accompanying this 
change is a corresponding shift in how signification is understood and cor- 
poreally experienced. In contrast to Lacanian psycholinguistics, derived 
from the generative coupling of linguistics and sexuality, flickering signifi- 
cation is the progeny of the fascinating and troubling coupling of language 
and machine. 

Information Narratives and Bodies of Information 

The shift from presence and absence to pattern and randomness is en- 
coded into every aspect of contemporary literature, from the physical ob- 
ject that constitutes the text to such staples of literary interpretation as 
character, plot, author, and reader. The development is by no means even; 
some texts testify dramatically and explicitly to the shift, whereas others 
manifest this shift only indirectly. I will call those texts in which the dis- 
placement is most apparent information narratives. Information narra- 
tives show, in exaggerated form, changes that are more subtly present in 
other texts as well. Whether in information narratives or contemporary fic- 
tion generally, the dynamic of displacement is crucial. One could focus on 
pattern in any era, but the peculiarity of pattern in these texts is its inter- 
penetration with randomness and its implicit challenge to physicality. 
Pattern tends to overwhelm presence , leading to a construction of immate- 
riality that depends not on spirituality or even consciousness but only on in- 

Consider William Gibson’s Neuromancer ( 1984), the novel that — along 
with the companion volumes Count Trero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive 

3 6 / Chapter Two 

(1988) — sparked the cyberpunk movement. The Neuromancer trilogy 
gave a local habitation and a name to the disparate spaces of computer sim- 
ulations, networks, and hypertext windows that, before Gibson s interven- 
tion, had been discussed as separate phenomena. Gibson’s novels acted like 
seed crystals thrown into a supersaturated solution; the time was ripe for 
the technology known as cyberspace to precipitate into public conscious- 
ness. In Neuromancer the narrator defines cyberspace as a “consensual il- 
lusion” accessed when a user “jacks into” a computer. Here the writers 
imagination outstrips existing technologies, for Gibson imagines a direct 
neural link between the brain and the computer through electrodes. An- 
other version of this link is a socket, implanted behind the ear, that accepts 
computer chips, allowing direct neural access to computer memory. Net- 
work users collaborate in creating the richly textured landscape of cyber- 
space, a “graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every' 
computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light 
ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. 
Like city lights, receding.” 23 Existing in the nonmaterial space of computer 
simulation, cyberspace defines a regime of representation within which 
pattern is the essential reality, presence an optical illusion. 

Like the landscapes they negotiate, the subjectivities who operate 
within cyberspace also become patterns rather than physical entities. Case, 
the computer cowboy who is the protagonist of Neuromancer, still has a 
physical presence, although he regards his body as so much “meat” that ex- 
ists primarily to sustain his consciousness until the next time he can enter 
cyberspace. Others have completed the transition that Case’s values imply. 
Dixie Flatline, a cowboy who encountered something in cyberspace that 
flattened his EEG, ceased to exist as a physical body and lives now as a per- 
sonality construct within the computer, defined by the magnetic patterns 
that store his identity. 

The contrast between the body’s limitations and cyberspace’s power 
highlights the advantages of pattern over presence. As long as the pattern 
endures, one has attained a kind of immortality — an implication that Hans 
Moravec makes explicit in Mind Children. Such views are authorized by 
cultural conditions that make physicality seem a better state to be from 
than to inhabit. In a world despoiled by overdevelopment, overpopulation, 
and time-release environmental poisons, it is comforting to think that phys- 
ical forms can recover their pristine purity by being reconstituted as infor- 
mational patterns in a multidimensional computer space. A cyberspace 
body, like a cyberspace landscape, is immune to blight and corruption. It is 
no accident that the vaguely apocalyptic landscapes of films such as Ter- 

Virtual Bodies and Flickering Si gnifier / 37 

minator, Blade Runner, and Hardware occur in narratives focusing on 
cybernetic life-forms. The sense that the world is rapidly becoming unin- 
habitable by human beings is part of the impetus for the displacement of 
presence by pattern. 

These connections lie close to the surface in Neuromancer. “Get just 
wasted enough, find yourself in some desperate but strangely arbitrary 
kind of trouble, and it was possible to see Ninsei as a field of data, the way 
the matrix had once reminded him of proteins linking to distinguish cell 
specialities. Then you could throw yourself into a highspeed drift and skid, 
totally engaged but set apart from it all, and all around you the dance of 
biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of the black mar- 
ket .” 24 The metaphoric slippages between urban sprawl, computer matrix, 
and biological protein culminate in the final elliptical phrase, “data made 
flesh.” Information is the putative origin, physicality the derivative mani- 
festation. Body parts sold in black-market clinics, body neurochemistry 
manipulated by synthetic drugs, body of the world overlaid by urban 
sprawl — all testify to the precariousness of physical existence. If flesh is 
data incarnate, why not go back to the source and leave the perils of physi- 
cality behind? 

The reasoning presupposes that subjectivity and computer programs 
have a common arena in which to interact. Historically, that arena was first 
defined in cybernetics by the creation of a conceptual framework that con- 
stituted humans, animals, and machines as information-processing devices 
receiving and transmitting signals to effect goal-directed behavior . 25 
Gibson matches this technical achievement with two literary innovations 
that allow subjectivity, with its connotations of consciousness and self- 
awareness, to be articulated together with abstract data. The first is a subtle 
modification in point of view, abbreviated in the text as “pov.” More than an 
acronym, pov is a substantive noun that constitutes the characters subjec- 
tivity by serving as a positional marker substituting for his absent body. 

In its usual Jamesian sense, point of view presumes the fiction of a per- 
son who observes the action from a particular angle and tells what he sees. 
In the preface to The Portrait of a Lady, James imagines a “house of fiction” 
with a “million windows” formed by “the need of the individual vision and 
by the pressure of the individual will.” At each window “stands a figure with 
a pair of eyes, or at least with a field glass, which forms, again and again, for 
observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an 
impression distinct from every other .” 26 For James, the observer is an em- 
bodied creature, and the specificity of his or her location determines what 
the observer can see when looking out on a scene that itself is physically 

3 8 / Chapter Two 

specific. When an omniscient viewpoint is used, the limitations of the nar- 
rator’s corporeality begin to fall away, but the suggestion of embodiment 
lingers in the idea of focus, the “scene” created by the eye s movement. 

Even for James, vision is not unmediated technologically. Significantly, 
he hovers between eye and field glass as the receptor constituting vision. 
Cyberspace represents a quantum leap forward into the technological con- 
struction of vision. Instead of an embodied consciousness looking through 
the window at a scene, consciousness moves through the screen to become 
the pov, leaving behind the body as an unoccupied shell. In cyberspace, 
point of view does not emanate from the character; rather, the pov literally 
is the character. If a pov is annihilated, the character disappears with it, 
ceasing to exist as a consciousness in and out of cyberspace. The realistic fic- 
tion of a narrator who observes but does not create is thus unmasked in cy- 
berspace. The effect is not primarily metafictional, however, but is in a 
literal sense metaphysical, above and beyond physicality. The crucial dif- 
ference between the Jamesian point of view and the cyberspace pov is that 
the former implies physical presence, whereas the latter does not. 

Gibson’s technique recalls Alain Robbe-Grillet s novels, which were 
among the first information narratives to exploit the formal consequences 
of combining subjectivity with data. In Robbe-Grillet s work, however, the 
effect of interfacing narrative voice with objective description was para- 
doxically to heighten the narrator s subjectivity, for certain objects, like the 
jalousied windows or the centipede in Jealousy, are inventoried with obses- 
sive interest, indicating a mindset that is anything but objective. In Gibson, 
the space in which subjectivity moves lacks this personalized stamp. Cy- 
berspace is the domain of virtual collectivity, constituted as the resultant of 
millions of vectors representing the diverse and often conflicting interests 
of human and artificial intelligences linked together through computer 
networks . 27 

To make this space work as a level playing field on which humans and 
computers can meet on equal terms, Gibson introduces his second innova- 
tion. Cyberspace is created by transforming a data matrix into a landscape 
in which narratives can happen. In mathematics, “matrix” is a technical 
term denoting data that have been arranged into an n-dimensional array. 
Expressed in this form, data seem as far removed from the fascinations of 
story as random-number tables are from the National Inquirer. Because 
the array is already conceptualized in spatial terms, however, it is a small 
step to imagining the matrix as a three-dimensional landscape. Narrative 
becomes possible when this spatiality is given a temporal dimension by the 
povs movement through it. The pov is located in space, but it exists in time. 

Virtual Bodies and Flickering S i gn i f i e r / 39 

Through the track it weaves, the desires, repressions, and obsessions of 
subjectivity can be expressed. The genius of Neuromancer lies in its explicit 
recognition that the categories Kant considered fundamental to human ex- 
perience — space and time — can be used as a conjunction to join aware- 
ness with data. Reduced to a point, the pov is abstracted into a purely 
temporal entity with no spatial extension; metaphorized into an interactive 
space, the datascape is narrativized by the pov’s movement through it. Data 
are thus humanized, and subjectivity is computerized, allowing them to 
join in a symbiotic union whose result is narrative. 

Such innovations carry' the implications of informatics beyond the tex- 
tual surface into the signifying processes that constitute theme and charac- 
ter. I suspect that Gibson s novels have been so influential not only because 
they present a vision of the posthuman future that is already upon us — in 
this they are no more prescient than many other science fiction novels — 
but also because they 7 embody within their techniques the assumptions ex- 
pressed explicitly in the themes of the novels. This kind of move is possible 
when the cultural conditions authorizing the assumptions are pervasive 
enough that the posthuman is experienced as an everyday, lived reality as 
well as an intellectual proposition. 

The shift of emphasis from ownership to access is another manifestation 
of the underlying transition from presence/absence to pattern/random- 
ness. In The Condition ofPostmodemity, David Harvey characterizes the 
economic aspects of the shift to an informatted society as a transition from 
a Fordist regime to a regime of flexible accumulation . 28 As Harvey and 
many others have pointed out, in late capitalism, durable goods yield pride 
of place to information . 29 A significant difference between information 
and durable goods is replicability. Information is not a conserved quantity. 
If I give you information, you have it and I do too. With information, the 
constraining factor separating the haves from the have-nots is not so much 
possession as access. Presence precedes and makes possible the idea of 
possession, for one can possess something only if it already exists. By con- 
trast, access implies pattern recognition, whether the access is to a piece of 
land (recognized as such through the boundary pattern defining that land 
as different from adjoining parcels), confidential information (constituted 
as confidential through the comparison of its informational patterns with 
less-secure documents), or a bank vault (associated with knowing the cor- 
rect pattern of tumbler combinations). In general, access differs from pos- 
session because the former tracks patterns rather than presences. When 
someone breaks into a computer system, it is not a physical presence that is 
detected but the informational traces that the entry has created . 30 

<o / Chapter Two 

When the emphasis falls on access rather than ownership, the private/ 
public distinction that was so important in the formation of the novel is rad- 
ically reconfigured. Whereas possession implies the existence of private 
life based on physical exclusion or inclusion, access implies the existence of 
eredentialing practices that use patterns rather than presences to distin- 
guish between those who do and those who do not have the right to enter. 
Moreover, entering is itself constituted as access to data rather than as a 
change in physical location. In Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), for ex- 
ample, the Gladneys’ home, traditionally the private space of family life, is 
penetrated by noise and radiation of all wavelengths — microwave, radio, 
television. 31 The penetration signals that private spaces, and the private 
thoughts they engender and figure, are less a concern than the interplay be- 
tween codes and the articulation of individual subjectivity with data. Jack 
Gladneys death is prefigured for him as a pattern of pulsing stars around a 
computerized data display, a striking image of how his corporeality has 
been penetrated by informational patterns that construct as well as predict 
his mortality. 

Although the Gladney family still operates as a social unit (albeit with the 
geographical dispersion endemic to postmodern life), their conversations 
are punctuated by random bits of information emanating from the radio 
and TV. The punctuation points toward a mutation in subjectivity that 
comes from joining the focused attention of traditional novelistic con- 
sciousness with the digitized randomness of miscellaneous bits. The muta- 
tion reaches incarnation in Willie Mink, whose brain has become so addled 
by a designer drug that his consciousness is finally indistinguishable from 
the white noise that surrounds him. Through a route different from that 
used by Gibson, DeLillo arrives at a similar destination: a vision of subjec- 
tivity constituted through the interplay of pattern and randomness rather 
than presence and absence. 

The bodies of texts are also implicated in these changes. The displace- 
ment of presence by pattern thins the tissue of textuality, making it a semi- 
permeable membrane that allows awareness of the text as an informational 
pattern to infuse into the space of representation. When the fiction of pres- 
ence gives way to the recognition of pattern, passages are opened between 
the text-as-object and those representations within the text that are charac- 
teristic of the condition of virtuality. Consider the play between text as 
physical object and as information flow in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s 
night a traveler (1979). The texts awareness of its own physicality is 
painfully apparent in the anxiety it manifests toward keeping the literary' 
corpus intact. Within the space of representation, texts are subjected to 

Virtual Bodies and Flickering Si gn i f i e r / < i 

birth defects, maimed and torn apart, lost and stolen. The text operates as if 
it knows it has a physical body and fears that its body is in jeopardy from a 
host of threats, from defective printing technologies and editors experienc- 
ing middle-age brain fade to nefarious political plots. Most of all, perhaps, 
the text fears losing its body to information. 

When “you,” the reader, are foiled in your pursuit of its story by the 
frailty of the text’s physical corpus, the narrator imagines you hurling the 
book through a closed window, reducing the texts body to “photons, undu- 
latory vibrations, polarized spectra.” Not content with this pulverization, 
you throw it through the wall so that the text breaks up into “electrons , neu- 
trons, neutrinos, elementary particles more and more minute.” Still 
disgusted, in an act of ultimate dispersion, you send it through a computer 
line, causing the textual body to be “reduced to electronic impulses, into 
the flow of information.” With the text “shaken by redundancies and 
noises,” you “let it be degraded into a swirling entropy.” Yet the very story 
you seek can be envisioned as a pattern, for that night you sleep and “fight 
with dreams as with formless and meaningless life, seeking a pattern, a 
route that must surely be there, as when you begin to read a book and you 
don’t yet know in which direction it will carry you . ” 32 

Once the texts physical body is interfaced with information technolo- 
gies, however, the pattern that is story stands in jeopardy of being disrupted 
by the randomness implicit in information. The disruptive power of ran- 
domness becomes manifest when you find yourself entangled with Lotaria, 
a reader who believes books are best read by scanning them into computers 
and letting the machine analyze word-frequency patterns. Seduced by 
Lotaria against your better judgment, you get tangled up with her and with 
rolls of printout covering the floor. The printouts contain part of the story 
that you desperately want to finish, which Lotaria has entered into the com- 
puter. Distracted by her multiple entanglements, Lotaria presses the 
wrong key, and the rest of the story is “erased in an instant demagnetization 
of the circuits. The multicolored wires now grind out the dust of dissolved 
words: the the, of of of of, from from from from, that that that that, in 
columns according to their respective frequency. The book has been crum- 
bled, dissolved, can no longer be recomposed, like a sand dune blown away 
by the wind. ” 33 N ow you can never achieve satiation , never reach the point 
of satisfied completion that comes with finishing a book. Your anxiety about 
reading interruptus is intensified by what might be called print interrup- 
tus, a print books fear that once it has been digitized, the computer will gar- 
ble its body, breaking it apart and reassembling it into the nonstory of a data 
matrix rather than an entangled and entangling narrative. 

t, 2 / Chapter Two 

This anxiety is transmitted to readers within the text, who keep pursuing 
parts of textual bodies only to lose them, as well as to readers outside the 
text, who must try to make sense of the radically discontinuous narrative. 
Only when the chapter titles are perceived to form a sentence is the literary 
corpus reconstituted as a unity. Significantly, tire recuperation is syntactical 
rather than physical. It does not arise from or imply an intact physical body. 
Rather, it emerges from the patterns— metaphorical, grammatical, narra- 
tive, thematic, and textual — that the parts together make. As the climactic 
scene in the library suggests, the reconstituted corpus is a body of informa- 
tion, emerging from the discourse community among whom information 
circulates. The textual body may be dismembered or ground into digital 
word dust, the narrative implies, but as long as there are readers who care 
passionately about stories and want to pursue them, narrative itself can be 
recuperated. Through such textual strategies. If on a winter’s night testifies 
vividly to the impact of information technologies on bodies of books. 

Human bodies are similarly affected. The correspondence between hu- 
man and textual bodies can be seen as early as William Burroughs’s Naked 
Lunch, written in 1959, in the decade that sawthe institutionalization of cy- 
bernetics and the construction of the first large-scale electronic digital 
computer. 34 The narrative metamorphizes nearly as often as bodies within 
it, suggesting by its cut-up method a textual corpus that is as artificial, het- 
erogeneous, and cybernetic as they are. 35 Since the fissures that mark the 
text always fall within the units that compose the textual body — within 
chapters, paragraphs, sentences, and even words — it becomes increas- 
ingly clear that they do not function to delineate the textual corpus. Rather, 
the body of the text is produced precisely by these fissures, which are not so 
much ruptures as productive dialectics that bring the narrative as a syntac- 
tic and chronological sequence into being. 

Bodies within the text follow the same logic. Under the pressure of sex 
and addiction, bodies explode or mutate, protoplasm is sucked out of cocks 
or nostrils, plots are hatched to take over the planet or nearest life-form. 
Burroughs anticipates Fredric Jamesons claim that an information society 
is the purest form of capitalism. When bodies are constituted as informa- 
tion, they can be not only sold but fundamentally reconstituted in response 
to market pressures. Junk instantiates the dynamics of informatics and 
makes clear the relation of junk-as-information to late capitalism. Junk is 
the “ideal product” because the “junk merchant does not sell his product to 
the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve 
and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.” 36 
The junkie s body is a harbinger of the postmodern mutant, for it demon- 

Virtual Bodies and Flickering S i gn i f ier / 43 

strates how presence yields to assembly and disassembly patterns created 
by the flow of junk-as-information through points of amplification and re- 

The characteristics of information narratives include, then, an emphasis 
on mutation and transformation as a central thematic for bodies within the 
text as well as for the bodies of texts. Subjectivity, already joined with infor- 
mation technologies through cybernetic circuits, is further integrated into 
the circuit by novelistic techniques that combine it with data. Access vies 
with possession as a structuring element, and data are narrativized to ac- 
commodate their integration with subjectivity. In general, materiality and 
immateriality are joined in a complex tension that is a source of exultation 
and strong anxiety. 

Information technologies leave their mark on books in the realization 
that sooner or later, the body of print will be interfaced with other media. 
All but a handful of books printed in the U nited States and Europe in 1998 
will be digitized during some phase of their existence. Print texts such as If 
on a winter’s n ight a traveler bear the imprint of this digitalization in their 
narratives, as if the text remembers the moment when it was nothing but 
electronic polarities on a disk. At moments of crisis, the repressed memory 
erupts onto the textual surface in the form of an acute fear that randomness 
will so interpenetrate its patterns that story will be lost and the textual cor- 
pus will be reduced to a body of meaningless data. These eruptions are vivid 
testimony that even print texts cannot escape being affected by informa- 
tion technologies. 

To understand more about the effects of informatics on contemporary 
fictions, let us turn now to consider the relation between text and subjectiv- 
ity, specifically how information narratives constitute both the voice speak- 
ing the narrative and the reader. 

Functionalities of Narrative 

The very word narrator implies a voice speaking, and a speaking voice im- 
plies a sense of presence. Jacques Derrida, announcing the advent of gram- 
matology, focused on the gap that separates speaking from writing. Such a 
change transforms the narrator from speaker to scribe or, more precisely, 
someone who is absent from the scene but toward whom the inscriptions 
point. 37 Informatics pushes this transformation further. As writing yields to 
flickering signifiers underwritten by binary digits, the narrator becomes 
not so such a scribe as a cyborg authorized to access the relevant codes. The 
progression suggests that the dialectic between absence and presence 

4 4 / Chapter Two 

came clearly into focus with the advent of deconstruction because it was al- 
ready being displaced as a cultural presupposition by randomness and pat- 
tern. Presence and absence were forced into visibility, so to speak, because 
they were already losing their constitutive power to form the ground for 
discourse, becoming instead the subject of discourse. In this sense, decon- 
struction is the child of an information age, formulating its theories from 
strata pushed upward by the emerging substrata beneath. 

To see how the function of the narrator changes as we progress deeper 
into virtuality, consider the seduction scene from “I Was an Infinitely Hot 
and Dense White Dot,” one of the stories in Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, My 
Gastroenterologist. The narrator, “high on Sinutab” and driving “isotropi- 
cally,” so that any destination is equally probable, finds himself at a “squalid 
little dive.” 

I don’t know . . . but there she is. I can’t tell if she’s a human or a fifth-generation 
gynemorphie android and I don’t care. I crack open an ampoule of mating 
pheromone and let it waft across the bar, as I sip my drink, a methyl isocyanate 
on the rocks — methyl isocyanate is the substance which killed more than 2,000 
people when it leaked in Bhopal, India, but thanks to my weight training, aero- 
bic workouts, and a low-fat fiber-rich diet, the stuff has no effect on me. Sure 
enough she strolls over and occupies the stool next to mine. . . . My lips are now 
one angstrom unit from her lips ... I begin to kiss her but she turns her head 
away. ... I can’t kiss you, we’re monozygotic replicants — we share 100% of our 
genetic material. My head spins. You are the beautiful day, I exclaim, your 
breath is a zephyr of eucalyptus that does a pas de bourre across the Sea of 
Galilee. Thanks, she says, but we can’t go back to my house and make love be- 
cause monozygotic incest is forbidden by the elders. What if I said I could 
change all that. . . . What if I said that I had a miniature shotgun that blasts gene 
fragments into the cells of living organisms, altering their genetic matrices so 
that a monozygotic replicant would no longer be a monozygotic replicant and 
she could then make love to a muscleman without transgressing the incest 
taboo, I say, opening my shirt and exposing the device which I had stuck in the 
waistband of my black jeans. How’dyou get that thing? she gasps, ogling its thick 
fiber-reinforced plastic barrel and the Uzi-Biotech logo embossed on the mag- 
azine which held two cartridges of gelated recombinant D N A. I got it for Christ- 
mas. . . .Doyouhave any last words before I scramble your chromosomes, Isay, 
taking aim. Yes, she says, you first. 38 

Much of the wit in this passage comes from the juxtaposition of folk wisdom 
and seduction cliches with high-tech language and ideas. The narrator sips 
a chemical that killed thousands when it leaked into the environment, but 

Virtual Bodies and Flickering Si gn i f i e r / <55 

he is immune to damage because he eats a low-fat diet. The narrator leans 
close to the woman-android to kiss her, but he has not yet made contact 
when he is an angstrom away, considerably less than the diameter of a hy- 
drogen atom. The characters cannot make love because they are barred by 
incest taboos, being replicants from the same monozygote, which would 
make them identical twins, but this does not seem to prevent them from be- 
ing opposite sexes. They are governed by kinship rules enforced by tribal 
elders, but they have access to genetic technologies that intervene in and 
disrupt evolutionary modes of descent. They think their problem can be 
solved by an Uzi-Biotech weapon that will scramble their chromosomes, 
but the narrator, at least, seems to expect their identities to survive intact. 

Even within the confines of a short story no more than five pages long, 
this encounter is not preceded or followed by events that relate directly to 
it. Rather, the narrative leaps from scene to scene, all of them linked by only 
the most tenuous and arbitrary threads. The incongruities make the narra- 
tive a kind of textual android created through patterns of assembly and dis- 
assembly. There is no natural body to this text, any more than there are 
natural bodies within the text. As the title intimates, identity merges with 
typography (“I was a . . . dot”) and is further conflated with such high-tech 
reconstructions as computer simulations of gravitational collapse (“I was 
an infinitely hot and dense white dot”). Signifiers collapse like stellar bod- 
ies into an explosive materiality that approaches the critical point of nova, 
ready to blast outward into dissipating waves of flickering signification. 

The explosive tensions between cultural codes that familiarize the ac- 
tion and neologistic splices that dislocate traditional expectations do more 
than structure the narrative. They also constitute the narrator, who exists 
less as a speaking voice endowed with aplausible psychology than as a series 
of fissures and dislocations that push toward a new kind of subjectivity. To 
understand the nature of this subjectivity, let us imagine a trajectory that 
arcs from storyteller to professional to some destination beyond. Walter 
Benjamin’s shared community of values and presence — the community 
that he had in mind when he evoked the traditional storyteller whose words 
are woven into the rhythms ofwork — echoes faintly in allusions to the Song 
of Songs and tribal elders . 39 Overlaid on this is the professionalization that 
Jean-Fran<yois Lyotard wrote about in The Postmodern Condition, in which 
the authority to tell the story is constituted by possessing the appropriate 
credentials that qualify one as a member of a physically dispersed, elec- 
tronically bound professional community . 40 This phase of the trajectory is 
signified in a number of ways. The narrator is driving “isotropically,” in- 
dicating that physical location is no longer necessary or relevant to the 

<j 6 / Chapter Two 

production of the story. His authority derives not from his physical partici- 
pation in a community but from his possession of a high-tech language that 
includes pheromones, methyl isocyanate, and gelated recombinant DNA, 
not to mention the Uzi-Biotech phallus. This authority too is displaced 
even as it is created, for the incongruities reveal that the narrative and 
therefore the narrator are radically unstable, about to mutate into a 
scarcely conceivable form, signified in the story by the high-tech, identity- 
transforming orgasmic blast that never quite comes. 

What is this form? Its physical manifestations vary, but the ability to ma- 
nipulate complex codes is a constant. The looming transformation, already 
enacted through the language of the passage, is into a subjectivity who de- 
rives his authority from possessing the correct codes. Popular literature 
and culture contain countless scenarios in which someone fools a computer 
into thinking that he or she is an “authorized” person because the person 
possesses or stumbles upon the codes that the computer recognizes as con- 
stituting authorization. Usually these scenarios imply that the person exists 
unchanged, taking on a spurious identity that allows him or her to move un- 
recognized within an informational system. There is, however, anotherway 
to read these narratives. Constituting identity through authorization codes, 
the person using the codes is changed into another kind of subjectivity, pre- 
cisely one who exists and is recognized because of knowing the codes. The 
surface deception is underlaid by a deeper truth. We become the codes we 
punch. The narrator is not a storyteller and not a professional authority, al- 
though these functions linger in the narrative as anachronistic allusions and 
wrenched referentiality. Rather, the narrator is a keyboarder, a hacker, a 
manipulator of codes . 41 Assuming that the text was digitized at some phase 
in its existence, in a literal sense he (it?) is these codes. 

The construction of the narrator as a manipulator of codes obviously has 
important implications for the construction of the reader. The reader is 
similarly constituted through a layered archaeology that moves from lis- 
tener to reader to decoder. Drawing on a context that included information 
technologies, Roland Barthes in S/Z brilliantly demonstrated the possibil- 
ity of reading a text as a production of diverse codes . 42 Information narra- 
tives make that possibility' an inevitability, for they often cannot be 
understood, even on a literal level, without referring to codes and the infor- 
matics that produce and are produced by these codes. Flickering significa- 
tion extends the productive force of codes beyond the text to include the 
signifying processes by which the technologies produce texts, as well as the 
interfaces that enmesh humans into integrated circuits. As the circuits 
connecting technology, text, and human expand and intensify, the point 

Virtual Bodies and Flickering S i gn i f i e r / 47 

where quantitative increments shade into qualitative transformation draws 

Because codes can be sent over fiber optics essentially instantaneously, 
there is no longer a shared, stable context that helps to anchor meaning and 
guide interpretation. Like reading, decoding takes place in a location arbi- 
trarily far removed in space and time from the source text. In contrast to the 
fixity of print, decoding implies that there is no original text — no first edi- 
tions, no fair copies, no holographic manuscripts. There are only the flick- 
ering signifiers, whose transient patterns evoke and embody what G. W. S. 
Trow has called the context of no context, the suspicion that all contexts, 
like all texts, are electronically mediated constructions . 43 What binds the 
decoder to the system is not the stability of being a member of an interpre- 
tive community or the intense pleasure of physically possessing the book, a 
pleasure that all bibliophiles know. Rather, it is the decoders construction 
as a cyborg, the impression that his or her phys icality is also data made flesh, 
another flickering signifier in a chain of signification that extends through 
many levels, from the DNA that in-formats the decoders body to the binary 
code that is the computers first language. 

Against this dream or nightmare of the body as information, what alter- 
natives exist? We can see beyond this dream , I have argued, by attending to 
the material interfaces and technologies that make disembodiment such a 
powerful illusion. By adopting a double vision that looks simultaneously at 
the power of simulation and at the materialities that produce it, we can bet- 
ter understand the implications of articulating posthuman constructions 
together with embodied actualities. One way to think about these material- 
ities is through functionality. “F unctionality” is a term used by virtual real- 
ity technologists to describe the communication modes that are active in a 
computer-human interface. If the user wears a data glove, for example, 
hand motions constitute one functionality. If the computer can respond to 
voice -activated commands, voice is another functionality. If the computer 
can sense body position, spatial location is yet another functionality. Func- 
tionalities work in both directions; that is, they describe the computers ca- 
pabilities and also indicate how the user’s sensory- motor apparatus is being 
trained to accommodate the computer s responses. Working with a VR sim- 
ulation, the user learns to move his or her hand in stylized gestures that the 
computer can accommodate. In the process, the neural configuration of 
the user’s brain experiences changes, some of which can be long-lasting. 
The computer molds the human even as the human builds the computer. 

When narrative functionalities change, a new kind of reader is produced 
by the text. The material effects of flickering signification ripple outward 

4 8 / Chapter Two 

because readers are trained to read through different functionalities, 
which can affect how they interpret any text, including texts written before 
computers were invented. The impatience that some readers now feel with 
print texts, for example, no doubt has a physiological as well as a psycholog- 
ical basis. They miss pushing the keys and seeing the cursor blinking at 
them. Conversely, other readers (or perhaps the same readers in different 
moods) go back to print with a renewed appreciation for its durability, its 
sturdiness, and its ease of use. I began to appreciate certain qualities of 
print only after I had experience with computers. When I open a book, it 
almost always works, and it can maintain backward compatibility for hun- 
dreds of years. I also appreciate that on some occasions — when I am revis- 
ing a piece of writing, for example — there isn’t a cursor blinking at me, as if 
demanding a response. With print I can take as long as I want, and the pages 
never disappear or shut themselves down. As these examples illustrate, 
changes in narrative functionalities are deeper than the structural or the- 
matic characteristics of a specific genre, for they shift the embodied re- 
sponses and expectations that different kinds of textualities evoke. Arguing 
from a different historical context, Friedrich Kittler made a similar point 
when he wrote about medial ecology. 44 When new media are introduced, 
the changes transform the environment as a whole. This transformation 
affects the niches that older media have carved for themselves, so they 
change also, even if they are not directly involved with the new media. 
Books will not remain unaffected by the emergence of new media. 

If my assessment — that the emphasis on information technologies fore- 
grounds pattern/randomness and pushes presence/ absence into the back- 
ground — is correct, the implications extend beyond narrative into many 
cultural arenas. As I indicated in chapter 1, one of the most serious of these 
implications is a systematic devaluation of materiality and embodiment. I 
find this trend ironic, for changes in material conditions and embodied ex- 
perience are precisely what give the shift its deep roots in everyday experi- 
ence. Implicit in nearly everything I have written here is the assumption 
that presence and pattern are opposites existing in antagonistic relation. 
The more emphasis that falls on one, the less the other is noticed and val- 
ued. Entirely different readings emerge when one entertains the possibil- 
ity that pattern and presence are mutually enhancing and supportive. Paul 
Virilio has observed that one cannot ask whether information technologies 
should continue to be developed. 45 Given market forces already at work, it 
is virtually (if I may use the word) certain that we will increasingly live, 
work, and play in environments that construct us as embodied virtuali- 
ties. 46 I believe that our best hope to intervene constructively in this de- 

Virtual Bodies and Flickering S i gn i f i e r / <9 

velopment is to put an interpretive spin on it — one that opens up the possi- 
bilities of seeing pattern and presence as complementary rather than an- 
tagonistic. Information, like humanity, cannot exist apart from the 
embodiment that brings it into being as a material entity in the world; and 
embodiment is always instantiated, local, and specific. Embodiment can be 
destroyed, but it cannot be replicated. Once the specific form constituting 
it is gone, no amount of massaging data will bring it back. This observation 
is as tme of the planet as it is of an individual life-form. As we rush to explore 
the new vistas that cyberspace has made available for colonization, let us re- 
member the fragility of a material world that cannot be replaced. 

Chapter Three 


When and where did information get constructed as a disembodied 
medium? How were researchers convinced that humans and machines are 
brothers under the skin? Although the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics 
were not the only forum grappling with these questions, they were particu- 
larly important because they acted as a crossroads for the traffic in cyber- 
netic models and artifacts. This chapter charts the arguments that made 
information seem more important than materiality within this research 
community. Broadly speaking, the arguments were deployed along three 
fronts. The first was concerned with the construction of information as a 
theoretical entity; the second, with the construction of (human) neural 
structures so that they were seen as flows of information; the third, with the 
construction of artifacts that translated information flows into observable 
operations, thereby making the flows “real.” 

Yet at each of these fronts, there was also significant resistance to the 
reification of information. Alternate models were proposed; important 
qualifications were voiced; objections were raised to the disparity between 
simple artifacts and the complex problems they addressed. Reification was 
triumphant not because it had no opposition but because scientifically and 
culturally situated debates made it seem a better choice than the alterna- 
tives. Recovering the complexities of these debates helps to demystify the 
assumption that information is more essential than matter or energy. Fol- 
lowed back to moments before it became a black box, this conclusion seems 
less like an inevitability and more like the result of negotiations specific to 
the circumstances of the U.S. techno-scientific culture during and imme- 
diately following World War II . 

The Macy Conferences were unusual in that participants did not pre- 
sent finished papers. Rather, speakers were invited to sketch out a few 

5 ° 

Contesting for the Body of Information / 51 

main ideas to initiate discussion. The discussions, rather than the presen- 
tations, were the center of interest. Designed to be intellectual free-for- 
alls, the conferences were radically interdisciplinary. The transcripts 
show that researchers from a wide variety of fields — neurophysiology, 
electrical engineering, philosophy, semantics, literature, and psychology, 
among others — struggled to understand one another and make connec- 
tions between others’ ideas and their own areas of expertise. In the 
process, a concept that may have begun as a model of a particular physical 
system came to have broader significance, acting simultaneously as 
mechanism and metaphor. 

The dynamics of the conferences facilitated this mixing. Researchers 
might not have been able to identify in their own work the mechanism dis- 
cussed by a fellow participant, but they could understand it metaphorically 
and then associate the metaphor with something applicable to their own 
field. The process appears repeatedly throughout the transcripts. When 
Claude Shannon used the word “information,” for example, he employed it 
as a technical term having to do with message probabilities. When Gregory 
Bateson appropriated the same word to talk about initiation rituals, he in- 
terpreted it metaphorically as a “difference that makes a difference” and 
associated it with feedback loops between contesting social groups. As 
mechanism and metaphor were compounded, concepts that began with 
narrow definitions spread out into networks of broader significance. Ear- 
lier I called these networks “constellations,” suggesting that during the 
Macy period, the emphasis was on homeostasis. This chapter explores the 
elements that came together to form the homeostasis constellation; it also 

demonstrates the chain of associations that bound reflexivity together with 

subjectivity during the Macy period, which for many of the physical scien- 

tists was enough to relegate reflexivity to the category of “nonscience” 

rather than “science. ” Tracing the development of reflexive epistemologies 
after the Macy period ended, the chapter concludes by showing how re- 
flexivity was modified so that it could count as producing scientific knowl- 

edge during the second wave of cybernetics. 

The Meaning(lessness) of Information 

The triumph of information over materiality was a major theme at the first 
Macy Conference. John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener led the way by 
making clear that the important entity in the man-machine equation was 
information, not energy. Although energy considerations are not entirely 
absent (von Neumann discussed at length the problems involved in dissi- 

5 2 / Chapter Three 

pating the heat generated from vacuum tubes), the thermodynamics of 
h eat was incidental . Central was how much information could flow through 
the system and how quickly it could move . Wiener, emphasizing the move- 
ment from energy to information, made the point explicitly: “The funda- 
mental idea is the message . . . and the fundamental element of the 
message is the decision.” 1 Decisions are important not because they pro- 
duce material goods but because they produce information. Control infor- 
mation, and power follows. 

But what counts as information? We saw in chapter 1 that Claude Shan- 
non defined information as a probability function with no dimensions, no 
materiality and no necessary connection with meaning. Although a full 
exposition of information theory is beyond the scope of this book, the fol- 
lowing explanation, adapted from an account by Wiener, will give an idea 
of the underlying reasoning. 2 Like Shannon, Wiener thought of informa- 
tion as representing a choice. More specifically, it represents a choice of 
one message from among a range of possible messages. Suppose there are 
thirty-two horses in a race, and we want to bet on Number 3. The bookie 
suspects the police have tapped his telephone, so he has arranged for his 
clients to use a code . He studied communication theory (perhaps he was in 
one of the summer-school classes on communication theory' that Wiener 
taught at UCLA), and he knows that any message can be communicated 
through a binary code. When we call up, his voice program asks if the 
number falls in the range of 1 to 16. If it does, we punch the number “1”; if 
not, the number “0.” We use this same code when the voice program asks 
if the number falls in the range of 1 to 8, then the range of 1 to 4, and next 
the range of 1 to 2. Now the program knows that the number must be ei- 
ther 3 or 4, so it says, “If 3, press 1; if 4, press 0,” and a final tap communi- 
cates the number. Using these binary divisions, we need five responses to 
communicate our choice. 

How does this simple decision process translate into information? First 
let us generalize our result. Probability theory states that the number of bi- 
nary' choices C necessary to uniquely identify an element from a set with n 
elements can be calculated as follows: 

C = log 2 n 
In our case, 

C = log 2 32 = 5, 

the five choices we made to convey our desired selection. (Hereafter, to 
simplify the notation, consider all logarithms taken to base 2). Working 

Contesting for the Body of Information / S3 

from this formula, Wiener defined information I as the log of the number n 
of elements in the message set. 

I = log n 

This fonnula gives 1 when the elements are equally likely. Usually this is not 
the case; in English, for example, the letter “e” is far more likely to occur than 
“z.”Forthe more general situation, when the elements s 1 ,s 2 ,s 3 , . . ,s n are not 
equally likely, and p(.s ) is the probability' that the element s will be chosen, 

I(s.) = log l/p(Sj) = — logp(y). 

This is the general formula for information communicated by a specific 
event, in our case the call to the bookie. Because electrical engineers must 
design circuits to handle a variety of messages, they are less interested in 
specific events than they are in the average amount of information from a 
source, for example, the average of all the different messages that a client 
might communicate about the horse race. This more complex case is rep- 
resented by the following formula: 

I = “ip:.>j) [logp(Sj)], 

where p(y) is the probability that the message elements. will be selected 
from a message set with n elements (1 indicates the sum of terms as i varies 
from 1 ton). 3 

We are now in a position to understand the deeper implications of infor- 
mation as it was theorized by Wiener and Shannon. Note that the theory is 
formulated entirely without reference to what information means. Only 
the probabilities of message elements enter into the equations. Why di- 
vorce information from meaning? Shannon and Wiener wanted informa- 
tion to have a stable value as it moved from one context to another. If it was 
tied to meaning, it would potentially have to change values every 7 time it was 
embedded in a new context, because context affects meaning. Suppose, for 
example, you are in a windowless office and call to ask about the weather. 
“It’s raining,” I say. On the other hand, if we are both standing on a street 
corner, being drenched by a downpour, this same response would have a 
very different meaning. In the first case, I am telling you something you 
don’t know; in the second, I am being ironic (or perhaps moronic). An in- 
formation concept that ties information to meaning would have to yield two 
different values for the two circumstances, even though the message (“It’s 
raining”) is the same. 

To cut through this Gordian knot. Shannon and Wiener defined infor- 
mation so that it would be calculated as the same value regardless of the 

54 / Chapter Three 

contexts in which it was embedded, which is to say, they divorced it from 
meaning. In context , this was an appropriate and sensible decision. Taken 
out of context, the definition allowed information to be conceptualized as if 
it were an entity that can flow unchanged between different material sub- 
strates, as when Moravec envisions the information contained in a brain 
being downloaded into a computer. Ironically, this reification of informa- 
tion is enacted through the same kind of decontextualizing moves that the 
theory uses to define information as such. The theory decontextualizes in- 
formation; Moravec decontextualizes the theory. Thus, a simplification ne- 
cessitated by engineering considerations becomes an ideology in which a 
reified concept of information is treated as if it were fully commensurate 
with the complexities of human thought . 4 

Shannon himself was meticulously careful about how he applied infor- 
mation theory, repeatedly stressing that information theory concerned 
only the efficient transmission of messages through communication chan- 
nels, not what those messages mean. Although others were quick to impute 
larger linguistic and social implications to the theory, he resisted these at- 
tempts. Responding to a presentation by Alex Bavelas on group communi- 
cation at the eighth Macy Conference, he cautioned that he did not see “too 
close a connection between the notion of information as we use it in com- 
munication engineering and what you are doing here . . . the problem here 
is not so much finding the best encoding of symbols . . . but, rather, the de- 
termination of the semantic question of what to send and to whom to send 
it .” 5 For Shannon, defining information as a probability function was a 
strategic choice that enabled him to bracket semantics. He did not want to 
get involved in having to consider the receiver s mindset as part of the com- 
munication system. He felt so strongly on this point that he suggested 
Bavelas distinguish between information in a channel and information in a 
human mind by characterizing the latter through “subjective probabili- 
ties,” although how these were to be defined and calculated was by no 
means clear. 

N ot everyone agreed that it was a good idea to decontextualize informa- 
tion. At the same time that Shannon and Wiener were forging what in- 
formation would mean in a U.S, context, Donald MacKay, a British 
researcher, was trying to formulate an information theory that would take 
meaning into account. At the seventh conference, he presented his ideas to 
the Macy group. The difference between his view and Shannons can be 
seen in the way he bridled at Shannons suggestion about “subjective prob- 
abilities.” In the rhetoric of the Macy Conferences, “objective” was associ- 
ated with being scientific, whereas “subjective” was a code word implying 

Contesting for the Body of Information / 55 

that one had fallen into a morass of unquantifiable feelings that might be 
magnificent but were certainly not science. M acKay’s first move was to res- 
cue information that affected the receiver s mindset from the “subjective” 
label. He proposed that both Shannon and Bavelas were concerned with 
what he called “selective information,” that is, information calculated by 
considering the selection of message elements from a set. But selective in- 
formation alone is not enough; also required is another kind of information 
that he called “structural.” Structural information indicates how selective 
information is to be understood; it is a message about how to interpret a 
message — that is, it is a metacommunication. 

To illustrate, say I launch into a joke and it falls flat. In that case, I may re- 
sort to telling my interlocutor, “That’s a joke . ” The information content of this 
message, considered as selective information (measured in “metrons”), is 
calculated with probability functions similar to those used in the Shannon- 
Wiener theory. In addition, my metacomment also carries structural infor- 
mation (measured in “logons”), for it indicates that the preceding message 
has one kind of structure rather than another (a joke instead of a serious 
statement). In another image MacKay liked to use, he envisioned selective 
information as choosing among folders in a file drawer, whereas structural 
information increased the number of drawers (jokes in one drawer, aca- 
demic treatises in another). 

Since structural information indicates how a message should be inter- 
preted, semantics necessarily enters the picture. In sharp contrast to mes- 
sage probabilities, which have no connection with meaning, structural 
information was to be calculated through changes brought about in the re- 
ceiver’s mind. “It’s raining,” heard by someone in a windowless office, would 
yield a value for the structural information different from the value that it 
would yield when heard by someone looking out a window at rain. To em- 
phasize the correlation between structural information and changes in the 
receivers mind, MacKay offered an analogy: “It is as if we had discovered 
how to talk quantitatively about size through discovering its effects on the 
measuring apparatus .” 6 The analogy implies that representations created 
by the mind have a double valence. Seen from one perspective, they contain 
in form ation about the world (“It’s raining”) .From another perspective, they 
are interactive phenomena that point back to the observer, for this informa- 
tion is quantified by measuring changes in the “measuring instrument,” that 
is, in the mind itself. And how does one measure these changes? An observer 
looks at the mind of the person who received the message, which is to say 
that changes are made in the observer’s mind, which in turn can also be ob- 
served and measured by someone else. The progression tends toward the 

§6 / Chapter Three 

infinite regress characteristic of reflexivity. Arguing for a strong correlation 
between the nature of a representation and its effect, MacKay s model rec- 
ognized the mutual constitution of form and content, message and receiver. 
His model was fundamentally different from the Shannon-Wiener theory 
because it triangulated between reflexivity, information, and meaning. In 
the context of the Macy Conferences, his conclusion qualified as radical: 
subjectivity, far from being a morass to be avoided, is precisely what enables 
information and meaning to be connected. 

The problem was how to quantify the model. To achieve quantification, 
a mathematical model was needed for the changes that a message triggered 
in the receivers mind. The staggering problems this presented no doubt 
explain why MacKay’s version of information theory was not widely ac- 
cepted among the electrical engineers who would be writing, reading, and 
teaching the textbooks on information theory in the coming decades. Al- 
though MacKay s work continued to be foundational for the British school 
of information theory, in the United States the Shannon- Wiener definition 
of information , not MacKay s, became the industry standard. 

N ot everyone in the U nited States capitulated. As late as 1968, Nicolas S . 
Tzannes, an information theorist working for the U.S. government, sent 
Warren McCulloch a memorandum about his attempt to revise MacKay s 
theory so that it would be more workable. ' He wanted to define informa- 
tion so that its meaning varied with context, and he looked to Kotelly s con- 
text algebra for a way to handle these changes quantitatively. In the process, 
he made an important observation. He pointed out that whereas Shannon 
and Wiener define information in terms of what it is, MacKay defines it in 
terms of what it does. 8 The formulation emphasizes the reification that in- 
formation undergoes in the Shannon-Wiener theory. Stripped of context, 
it becomes a mathematical quantity weightless as sunshine, moving in a 
rarefied realm of pure probability, not tied down to bodies or material in- 
stantiations. The price it pays for this universality is its divorce from repre- 
sentation. When information is made representational, as in MacKay’s 
model, it is conceptualized as an action rather than a thing. Verblike, it be- 
comes a process that someone enacts, and thus it necessarily implies con- 
text and embodiment. The price it pays for embodiment is difficulty of 
quantification and loss of universality. 

In the choice between what information is and what it does, we can see 
the rival constellations of homeostasis and reflexivity beginning to take 
shape. Making information a thing allies it with homeostasis, for so defined, 
it can be transported into any medium and maintain a stable quantitative 
value, reinforcing the stability that homeostasis implies. Making informa- 

Contesting for the Body of Information / 57 

tion an action links it with reflexivity, for then its effect on the receiver must 
be taken into account, and measuring this effect sets up the potential for a 
reflexive spiral through an infinite regress of observers. Homeostasis won 
in the first wave largely because it was more manageable quantitatively. Re- 
flexivity lost because specifying and delimiting context quickly ballooned 
into an unmanageable project. At every 7 point, these outcomes are tied to 
the historical contingencies of the situation- — the definitions offered, the 
models proposed, the techniques available, the allies and resources mobi- 
lized by contending participants for their views. Conceptualizing informa- 
tion as a disembodied entity was not an arbitrary decision, but neither was 
it inevitable. 

The tension between reified models and embodied complexities figures 
importantly in the next episode of our story 7 . If humans are information- 
processing machines, then they must have biological equipment enabling 
them to process binary code. The model constructing the human in these 
terms was the McCulloch-Pitts neuron. The McCulloch-Pitts neuron was 
the primary' model through which cybernetics was seen as having “a setting 
in the flesh,” as Warren McCulloch put it. The problem was how to move 
from this stripped-down neural model to such complex issues as universals 
in thought, gestalts in perception, and representations of what a system 
cannot represent. Here the slippage between mechanism and model be- 
comes important, for even among researchers dedicated to a hard-science 
approach, such as McCulloch, the tendency was to use the model meta- 
phorically to forge connections between relatively simple neural circuits 
and the complexities of embodied experience. In the process, the disem- 
bodied logical form of the circuit was rhetorically transformed from being 
an effect of the model to a cause of the model's efficacy. This move, familiar 
to us as the Platonic backhand, made embodied reality' into a blurred and 
messy instantiation of the clean abstractions of logical forms. Unlike others 
who make this move, however, McCulloch never relinquished his commit- 
ment to embodiment. The tension between logical form and embodiment 
in his work displays how the construction of a weightless information was 
complicated when cybernetics moved into the intimate context of the 
body’s own neural functioning. 

Neural Nets as Logical Operators 

Warren McCulloch figured large in the Macv Conferences. He chaired the 
meetings and, according to all accounts, was a strong leader who exercised 
considerable control over who was allowed to speak and who was not. He 

5 8 / Chapter Three 

had studied philosophy under F. S. C. Northrop and was familiar with 
Rudolf Carnap s propositional logic. When he turned to neurophysiology, 
he was driven by two questions as much philosophical as scientific. “What is 
a number, that a man may know it, and a man, that he may know a num- 
ber?” 9 He sought the answers in a model of a neuron that he envisioned as 
having two aspects — one physical, the other symbolic. The McCulloeh- 
Pitts neuron, as it came to be called, was enormously influential. Although 
it has now been modified in significant ways, for a generation of researchers 
it provided the standard model of neural functioning. In its day, it repre- 
sented a triumph of experimental work and theoretical reasoning. As Steve 
Heims points out, it was not easy to extrapolate from amorphous pink tissue 
on the laboratory table to the clean abstractions of the model. 10 Before 
complicating our story by looking at the interplay between logical form and 
complex embodiment, let us first consider the model on its own terms. 

The McCulloch-Pitts neuron has inputs that can be either excitatory or 
inhibitory. A threshold determines how much excitation is needed for it to 
fire. A neuron fires only if the excitation of its inputs exceeds the inhibition 
by at least the amount of the threshold. Neurons are connected into nets. 
Each net has a set of inputs (signals coming in to neurons in the net), an out- 
put set (signals leading out from neurons in the net), and a set of internal 
states (determined by input, output, and signals from neurons that operate 
inside the net but are not connected to incoming or outgoing neurons). 
McCulloch s central insight was that neurons connected in this way are ca- 
pable of signifying logical propositions. F or example , if neurons A and B are 
connected to C and both are necessary for C to fire, this situation corre- 
sponds to the proposition, “If A and B are both true, then C is true.” If either 
A or B can cause C to fire, the signified proposition is “If A or B is true, then 
C is true.” If B is inhibitory’ and C will fire on input from A only if B does not 
fire, the signified proposition is “C is true only if A is true and B is not true.” 
This much McCulloch had f ormulated by 1941 when he met Walter Pitts, a 
brilliant and eccentric seventeen-year-old who was to become his most im- 
portant collaborator. 11 Pitts worked out the mathematics proving several 
important theorems about neural nets. In particular, he showed that a 
neural net can calculate any number (that is, any proposition) that can be 
calculated by a Turing machine. 12 The proof was important because it 
joined a model of human neural functioning with automata theory. 
Demonstrating that the operations of a McCulloch-Pitts neural net and a 
Turing machine formally converge confirmed McCulloch’s insight “that 
brains do not secrete thought as the liver secretes bile but . . . they compute 
thought the way electronic computers calculate numbers.” 13 

Contesting for the Body of Information / 59 

Although McCulloch knew as well as anyone that the McCulloch-Pitts 
neuron was a simplified schematic of an actual neuron’s complexity, not to 
mention the brain’s complexity, he pushed toward connecting the opera- 
tions of a neural net directly with human thought. In his view, when a neu- 
ron receives an input related to a sensory stimulus, its firing is a direct 
consequence of something that happened in the external world. When he 
says a proposition calculated by a neural net is “true,” he means that the 
event to which the firing refers really happened. How did McCulloch ac- 
count for hallucinations and such phenomena as causalgia, an amputee s 
burning sensation that refers to a limb no longer present? He proposed that 
neural nets can set up reverberating loops that, once started, continue fir- 
ing even though no new signals are incoming. To distinguish between fir- 
ings signifying an external event and those caused by past history, he called 
the former “signals” and the latter “signs. ” A signal “always implies its occa- 
sion,” but a sign is an “enduring affair which has lost its essential temporal 
reference.” 14 The multiple meanings that McCulloch and his colleagues 
attached to reverberating loops indicate how quickly speculation leaped 
from the simplified model to highly complex phenomena. Lawrence Kubie 
linked reverberating loops with the repetitive and obsessive qualities of 
neuroses; numerous Macy participants suggested that the loops could ac- 
count for gestalt perception; and McCulloch himself connected them not 
only with physical sensations but also with universal in philosophical 
thought. 15 

The gap between the relatively simple model and the complex phenom- 
ena it was supposed to explain is the subject of an exchange of letters be- 
tween McCulloch and Hans-Lukas Teuber, a young psychologist who 
joined the Macy group on the fourth meeting and later became a coeditor 
of the published transcripts. Here, in correspondence with a junior col- 
league, McCulloch lays bare the assumptions that make embodied reality 
derivative from logical form. In a letter dated November 10, 1947, Teuber 
argues that similarity in outcome between different cybernetic systems 
does not necessarily imply similarity in structure or process. “Your robot 
may become capable of doing innumerable tricks the nervous system is 
able to do; it is still unlikely that the nervous system uses the same methods 
as the robot in arriving at what might look like identical results. Your mod- 
els remain models — unless some platonic demon mediate between the 
investigators of organic structure and the diagram-making mathemati- 
cians.” Only the psychologist, he claims, can give the neurophysiologist in- 
formation on what “the most relevant aspects of the recipient structures [in 
sensory function] might be,” 16 Cybernetic mechanisms do not signify un- 

6 o / Chapter Three 

less they are connected with how perception actually takes place in human 

In his response on December 10, 1947, McCulloch explained his posi- 
tion. “I look to mathematics, including symbolic logic, for a statement of a 
theory in terms so general that the creations of God and man must exem- 
plify the processes prescribed by that theory. Just because the theory is so 
general as to fit robot and man, it lacks the specificity required to indicate 
mechanism in man to be the same as mechanism in robot.” In this argu- 
ment, universality is achieved by bracketing or “black-boxing” the specific 
mechanisms. It emerges by erasing particularity and looking for general 
forms. Rhetorically, however, McCulloch presents the theory as though it 
p reexisted specific mechanisms and then was later imperfectly instantiated 
in them. This backhanded swing invests the theory with a coercive power 
that cannot be ignored, for it expresses “a law so general” that “every 7 circuit 
built by God or man must exemplify it in some form.” 1 ' 

In actuality, the theorem to which McCulloch refers is proved only in re- 
lation to the simplified model of a McCulloch-Pitts neural net. It therefore 
can have the coercive power he claims for it only if the assumptions made 
for the model also hold for embodied actuality, a congruence that can be ex- 
act only if the model is as complex and noisy as reality itself. Building such a 
model would, of course, defeat the purpose of model-making, as Lewis 
Carroll (and later Jorge Luis Borges) playfully points out when he imagines 
a kings mad cartographer who is satisfied only when he creates a map that 
covers the entire kingdom, reflecting its every 7 detail in a scale of 1:1. 18 
Teuber points to a gap when he ironically asks if some “platonic demon” is 
mediating between organic structure and abstract diagrams, a gap that has 
not been closed despite McCulloch’s backhand volley. 

In a feminist critique of the history 7 of logic, Andrea Nye traces similar 
Platonic backhands that were made to develop a logic coercive in its lawlike 
power. 19 Nye points out that such moves are always made in specific politi- 
cal and historical contexts in which they have important social implica- 
tions — implications that are masked by being presenting as preexisting 
laws of nature. 20 Like the logicians, McCulloch stripped away context to 
expose (or create) a universal form. But unlike the logicians, McCulloch in 
1947 does not want to leave embodied reality behind. He is searching for an 
“empirical epistemology,” a way of combining embodied actuality with the 
force of logical propositions. Teuber’s objections hit a nerve (or neuron) be- 
cause he insisted that the abstraction is not the actuality. 

Dedicated to an empirical epistemology, McCulloch cannot rest con- 
tent with interpreting logical form as a universal command that embodied 

Contesting for the Body of Information / 6 1 

flesh must obey. A suture is needed to bind the flesh more tightly to the 
model. The suture appears in his invocation of mechanisms that had previ- 
ously been black-boxed in his appeal to universality. He recounts two in- 
stances when circuits he had sketched out for pattern -recognition in robots 
were identified by colleagues as accurate representations of the auditory 
and visual portions of the cortex — in humans. Now McCulloch— like a 
knight that, moved from the diagonal to attack the queen, exposes the 
queen to the bishop s attack as well— has caught Teuber in a two-pronged 
attack. In the first approach, humans and robots are judged alike because 
they obey the same universal law, whatever their mechanisms. In the sec- 
ond approach, humans and robots are judged alike because they use the 
same mechanisms. This double attack is also invoked, as we shall see in the 
next chapter, by Norbert Wiener and his collaborators when a young up- 
start philosopher took issue with their cybernetic manifesto. It tends to 
appear when cybernetic arguments are challenged because it allows a de- 
fense on two fronts simultaneously. If mechanisms are black-boxed so that 
only behavior counts, humans and robots look the same because they (can 
be made to) behave the same. If the black boxes are opened up (and viewed 
from carefully controlled perspectives), the mechanisms inside the boxes 
look the same, again demonstrating the equivalence. 

How can the queen be saved? By recognizing that the abstractions here 
are multilayered. When McCulloch goes down a level, away from what in- 
formation is toward what it does, he still ends up several layers away from 
embodied complexity. Consider his claim that pattern-recognition circuits 
in a robot mechanism and in a human cortex are the same. These circuits 
are diagrams that have been abstracted from two different kinds of embod- 
iments, neural tissue for the human and vacuum tubes or silicon chips for 
the robot. Although there maybe a level of abstraction at which similarities 
can be made to appear, there is also a level of specificity at which differ- 
ences create a significant gap. It depends on how the perspective is con- 
structed. Controlling the context, particularly the movement from 
instantiated specificity to abstraction, was crucial to constructing the path- 
ways through which the MeCulloch-Pitts neuron was made to stand simul- 
taneously for a computer code and for human thought. Transforming the 
body into a flow of binary code pulsing through neurons was an essential 
step in seeing human being as an informational pattern. In context, this 
transformation can be seen as a necessary simplification that made an im- 
portant contribution to neurophysiology. Taken out of context, it is extrapo- 
lated to the unwarranted conclusion that there is no essential difference 
between thought and code. 

6 2 / Chapter Three 

I admire McCulloch because he made the audacious leap from amor- 
phous tissue to logical model; I admire him even more because he resisted 
the leap. Although he emphasized the ability of his neurons to formulate 
propositions, he never saw them as disembodied. He was aware that infor- 
mation moves only through signals and that signals have existence only if 
they are embodied. “By definition, a signal is a proposition embodied in a 
physical process,” he asserted in a speech, entitled “How Nervous Struc- 
tures Have Ideas,” to the American Neurological Association in 1949. 21 In 
the context of his writing as a whole , a commitment to embodiment exists in 
dynamic tension with an equally strong proclivity to see embodiment as the 
instantiation of abstract propositions. 

This tension can be seen in the manuscript version of “What’s in the 
Brain That Ink May Character?” dated August 28, 1964. McCulloch re- 
counts about a recent trip to Ravello: “I was told that an automaton or a 
nerve net, like me, was a mapping of a free monoid onto a semigroup with 
the possible addition of identity.” The parenthetical “like me” points up the 
incongruity between a highly abstract mathematical model involving 
monoids and semigroups and the embodied creature who pens these lines. 
“This is the same sort of nonsense one finds in the writings of those who 
never understood [abstract form] as an embodiment,” he continues. “It is 
like mistaking aChomsky language for a real language. You will find no such 
categorical confusion in the original Pitts and McCulloch of 1943. There 
the temporal propositional expressions are events occurring in time and 
space in a physically real net. The postulated neurons, for all their oversim- 
plifications, are still physical neurons as truly as the chemists atoms are 
physical atoms.” 22 Here, in the slippages between abstract propositions, 
models of neurons, and “physically real” nets, we can see McCulloch trying 
to keep three balls in the air at once. Although the neurons are only “postu- 
lated” and are admittedly “oversimplifications,” McCulloch fiercely wants 
to insist they are still physical. If he does not entirely succeed in creating an 
“empirical epistemology,” he nevertheless achieves no small feat in insist- 
ing that none of the balls can be dropped without sacrificing the complexi- 
ties of embodied thought. 

The McCulloch-Pitts neuron is a liminal object, part abstraction and 
part embodied actuality, but other models were more firmly in the material 
realm. Part of what made cybernetics convincing to Macy participants and 
others were the electromechanical devices that showed cybernetic princi- 
ples in action . Cybernetics was powerful because it worked. If you don’t be- 
lieve, watch William Grey Walter’s robot tortoise returning to its cage for an 
electrochemical nip when its batteries are running low, or see Wiener’s 

Contesting for the Bod y of I n f o r m a t i o n / 63 

Moth turning to follow the light and his Bedbug scuttling under a chair to 
avoid it. These devices were simple mechanisms by contemporary stan- 
dards. Nevertheless, they served an important function because they acted 
as material instantiations of the momentous conclusion that humans and 
robots are siblings under the skin. Particularly important for the Macy Con- 
ferences were Shannon’s electronic rat, a goal-seeking machine that mod- 
eled a rat learning a maze, and Ross Ashby’s homeostat, a device that sought 
to return to a steady state when disturbed. These artifacts functioned as ex- 
changers that brought man and machine into equivalence; they shaped the 
kinds of stories that participants would tell about the meaning of this equiv- 
alence. In conjunction with the formal theories, they helped to construct 
the human as cyborg. 

The Rat and the Homeostat: Looping between Concept and Artifact 

There are moments of clarity when participants came close to explicitly ar- 
ticulating the presuppositions informing the deep structure of the discus- 
sion. At the seventh conference, John Stroud, of the U.S. Naval Electronic 
Laboratory in San Diego, pointed to the far-reaching implications of 
Shannon’s construction of information through the binary distinction be- 
tween signal and noise. “Mr. Shannon is perfectly justified in being as arbi- 
trary' as he wishes,” Stroud observed. “We who listen to him must always 
keep in mind that he has done so. Nothing that comes out of rigorous argu- 
ment will be uncontaminated by the particular set of decisions that were 
made by him at the beginning, and it is rather dangerous at times to gener- 
alize. If we at any time relax orrr awareness of the way in which we originally 
defined the signal, we thereby automatically call all of the remainder of the 
received message the ‘not’ signal or noise .” 23 As Stroud realized. Shannon’s 
distinction between signal and noise had a conservative bias that privileges 
stasis over change. Noise interferes with the message’s exact replication, 
which is presumed to be the desired result. The structure of the theory 1 im- 
plied that change was deviation and that deviation should be corrected. By 
contrast, MacKay s theory had as its generative distinction the difference in 
the state of the receiver’s mind before and after the message arrived. In his 
model, information was not opposed to change; it was change. 

Applied to goal-seeking behavior, the two theories pointed in different 
directions. Privileging signal over noise, Shannon’s theory implied that the 
goal was a preexisting state toward which the mechanism would move by 
making a series of distinctions between correct and incorrect choices. The 
goal was stable, and the mechanism would achieve stability' when it reached 

64 / Chapter Three 

the goal. This construction easily led to the implication that the goal, for- 
mulated in general and abstract terms, was less a specific site than stability 
itself. Thus the construction of information as a signal/ noise distinction and 
the privileging of homeostasis produced and were produced by each other. 
By contrast, M acKay s theory implied that the goal was not a fixed point but 
was a changing series of values that varied with context. In his model, set- 
ting a goal temporarily marked a state that itself would become enfolded 
into a reflexive spiral of change. In the same way that signal/noise and 
homeostasis went together, so did reflexivity and information as a signifying 

These correlations imply that before Shannons electronic rat ever set 
marker in maze, it was constituted through assumptions that affected how 
it would be interpreted. Although Shannon called his device a maze-solv- 
ing machine, the Macy group quickly dubbed it a rat . 24 The machine con- 
sisted of a five-by-five square grid, through which a sensing finger moved. 
An electric jack that could be plugged into any of the twenty-five squares 
marked the goal, and the machine s task was to move through the squares 
by orderly search procedures until it reached the jack. The machine could 
remember previous search patterns and either repeat them or not, 
depending on whether they had been successful. Although Heinz von 
Foerster, Margaret Mead, and Hans Teuber — in their introduction to the 
eighth conference volume — highlighted the electronic rats significance, 
they also acknowledged its limitations. “We all know that we ought to study 
the organism, and not the computers, if we wish to understand the organ- 
ism. Differences in levels of organization may be more than quantitative.” 
They go on to argue, however, that “the computing robot provides us with 
analogs that are helpful as flu - as they seem to hold, and no less helpful 
whenever they break down. To find out in what ways a nervous system (or a 
social group) differs from our man-made analogs requires experiment. 
These experiments would not have been considered if the analog had not 
been proposed .” 25 

There is another way to understand this linkage. By suggesting certain 
kinds of experiments, the analogs between intelligent machines and hu- 
mans construct the human in terms of the machine. Even when the experi- 
ment fails, the basic terms of the comparison operate to constitute the 
signifying difference. If I say a chicken is not like a tractor, I have character- 
ized the chicken in terms of the tractor, no less than when I assert that the 
two are alike. In the same way, whether they are understood as like or un- 
like, ranging human intelligence alongside an intelligent machine puts the 
two into a relay system that constitutes the human as a special kind of infor- 

Contesting for the Body of Information / 65 

mation machine and the information machine as a special kind of human. 26 
Although some characteristics of the analogy may be explicitly denied, the 
basic linkages it embodies cannot be denied, for they are intrinsic to being 
able to think the model. Presuppositions embodied in the electronic rat in- 
clude the idea that both humans and cybernetic machines are goal-seeking 
mechanisms that learn, through corrective feedback, to reach a stable 
state. Both are information processors that tend toward homeostasis when 
they are functioning correctly. 

Given these assumptions, it was perhaps predictable that reflexivity 
should be constructed as neurosis in this model. Shannon, demonstrating 
how his electronic rat could get caught in a reflexive loop that would keep 
it circling endlessly around, remarked, “It has established a vicious circle, 
or a singing condition.” 2, “Singing condition” is a phrase that Warren 
McCulloch and Warren Pitts had used, in an earlier presentation, to de- 
scribe neuroses modeled through cybernetic neural nets. If machines are 
like humans in having neuroses, humans are like machines in having neu- 
roses that can be modeled mechanically. Linking humans and machines in 
a common circuit, the analogy constructs both of them as steady state sys- 
tems that become pathological when they fall into reflexivity. This kind of 
mutually constitutive interaction belies the implication, inscribed in the 
volumes introduction, that such analogs are neutral heuristic devices. 
More accurately, they are relay systems that transport assumptions from 
one arena to the next. 28 

The assumptions traveling across the relay system set up by homeostasis 
are perhaps most visible in the discussion of W. Ross Ashby’s homeostat. 29 
The homeostat was an electrical device constructed with transducers and 
variable resistors. When it received an input changing its state, it searched 
for the configuration of variables that would return it to its initial condition. 
Ashby explained that the homeostat was meant to model an organism 
which must keep essential variables within preset limits to survive. He em- 
phasized that the cost of exceeding those limits is death. If homeostasis 
equals safety (“Your life would be safe,” Ashby responded when demon- 
strating how the machine could return to homeostasis), departure from 
homeostasis threatens death (p. 79). One of his examples concerns an engi- 
neer sitting at the control panel of a ship. The engineer functions like a 
homeostat, striving to keep the dials within certain limits to prevent cata- 
strophe. Human and machine are alike in needing stable interior environ- 
ments. The human keeps the ship’s interior stable, and this stability 
preserves the homeostasis of the human s interior, in turn allowing the hu- 
man to continue to ensure the ship’s homeostasis. Arguing that homeosta- 

66 / Chapter Three 

sis is a requirement “uniform among the inanimate and the animate,” 
Ashby privileged it as a universally desirable state (p. 73). 

The postwar context for the Macy Conferences played an important role 
in formulating what counted as homeostasis. Given the cataclysm of the war, 
it seemed self-evident th at homeostasis was meaningful only if it included the 
environment as part of the picture. Thus Ashby conceived of the homeostat 
as a device that included both the organism and the environment. “Our ques- 
tion is how the organism is going to struggle with its environment,” he re- 
marked, “and if that question is to be treated adequately, we must assume 
some specific environment” (pp. 73-74). This specificity was expressed 
through the homeostat s four units, which could be arranged in various con- 
figurations to simulate organism-plus-environment. For example, one unit 
could be designated “organism” and the remaining three the “environment”; 
in another arrangement, three of the units might be the “organism,” with the 
remaining one the “environment.” Formulated in general terms, the prob- 
lem the homeostat addressed was this: given some function of the environ- 
ment E, can the organism find an inverse function E" 1 such that the product 
of the two will result in a steady state? When Ashby asked Macy participants 
whether such a solution could be found for highly nonlinear systems, Julian 
Bigelow correctly answered, “In general, no” (p. 75). Yet, as Walter Pitts ob- 
served, the fact that an organism continues to live means that a solution does 
exist. More precisely, the problem was whether a solution could be articu- 
lated within the mathematical conventions and technologies of representa- 
tion available to express it. These limits in turn were constituted through the 
models specificities that translated between the question in the abstract and 
the particular question posed by that experiment. Thus the emphasis shifted 
from finding a solution to stating the problem. 

This dynamic appears repeatedly throughout the Macy discussions. Par- 
ticipants increasingly understood the ability' to specify exactly what was 
wanted as the limiting factor for building machines that could perform hu- 
man functions. Von Neumann stated the thesis at the first conference, and 
Walter Pitts restated it near the end of the meetings, at the ninth confer- 
ence. “At the very' beginning of these meetings,” Pitts recalled, “the ques- 
tion was frequently under discussion of whether a machine could be built 
which would do a particular thing, and, of course, the answer, which every - 
body has realized by now', is that as long as you definitely specify what you 
w'ant the machine to do, you can, in principle, build a machine to do it” 
(p. 107). After the conferences were over, McCulloch repeated this dy- 
namic in Embodiments of Mind. Echoing across two decades, the assertion 
has important implications for language. 

Contesting for the Body of Information / 67 

If what is exactly stated can be done by a machine, the residue of the 
uniquely human becomes coextensive with the linguistic qualities that in- 
terfere with precise specification — ambiguity, metaphoric play, multiple 
encoding, and allusive exchanges between one symbol system and another. 
The uniqueness of human behavior thus becomes assimilated to the ineffa- 
bility of language, and the common ground that humans and machines 
share is identified with the univoeality of an instrumental language that has 
banished ambiguity from its lexicon. Through such “chunking” processes, 
the constellations ofhomeostasis and reflexivityassimilatedother elements 
into themselves. On the side of homeostasis was instrumental language, 
whereas ambiguity, allusion, and metaphor stood with reflexivity. 

By todays standards, Ashby’s homeostat was a simple machine, but it 
had encoded within it a complex network of assumptions. Paradoxically, 
the model’s simplicity facilitated the overlay of assumptions onto the arti- 
fact, for its very lack of complicating detail meant that the model stood for 
much more than it physically enacted. During discussion, Ashby acknowl- 
edged that the homeostat was a simple model and asserted that he “would 
like to get on to the more difficult case of the clever animal that has a lot of 
nervous system and is, nevertheless, trying to get itself stable” (p. 97). The 
slippage between the simplicity of the model and the complexity of the 
phenomena did not go unremarked. ]. Z. Young, from the Anatomy De- 
partment at University College, London, sharply responded: “Actually that 
is experimentally rather dangerous. You are all talking about the cortex and 
you have it very much in mind. Simpler systems have only a limited number 
of possibilities” (p. 100). Yet the “simpler systems” helped to reinforce sev- 
eral ideas: humans are mechanisms that respond to their environments by 
trying to maintain homeostasis; the function of scientific language is exact 
specification; the bottleneck for creating intelligent machines lies in for- 
mulating problems exactly; and an information concept that privileges ex- 
actness over meaning is therefore more suitable to model construction 
than one that does not. Ashby’s homeostat, Shannon’s information theory', 
and the electronic rat were collaborators in constructing an interconnected 
network of assumptions about language, teleology, and human behavior. 30 

These assumptions did not go uncontested. The concept that most 
clearly brought them into question was reflexivity. As we have seen, during 
the Macy Conferences reflexivity' was a nebulous cluster that was not ex- 
plicitly named as such. To give the flavor of the discussions that both in- 
voked the possibility of reflexivity and failed to coalesce into coherent 
theory about it, we can consider the image of the man-in-the- middle. The 
image was given currency by World War II engineering technologies that 

6 8 / Chapter Three 

aimed to improve human performance by splicing humans into feedback 
loops with machines. The image takes center stage in the sixth conference 
during John Strouds analysis of an operator sandwiched between a radar- 
tracking device on one side and an antiaircraft gun on the other. The gun 
operator, Stroud observed, is “surrounded on both sides by very' precisely- 
known mechanisms and the question comes up, ‘What kind of a machine 
have we put in the middle ?’” 31 The image as Stroud used it constructs the 
man as an input/output decree. Information comes in from the radar, trav- 
els through the man, and goes out through the gun. The man is significantly 
placed in the middle of the circuit, where his output and his input are al- 
ready spliced into an existing loop. Were he at the end, it might be neces- 
sary to consider more complex factors, such as how he was interacting with 
an open-ended and unpredictable environment. The focus in Stroud’s pre- 
sentation was on how information is transformed as it moves through the 
man-in-the-middle. As with the electronic rat and the homeostat, the em- 
phasis was on predictability and homeostatic stability. 

Countering this view was F rank F remont-Smith’s insistence on the ob- 
server’s role in constructing the image of the man-in-the-middle. “Proba- 
bly man is never only between the two machines,” he pointed out. 
“Certainly he is never only in between two machines when you are studying 
him because you are the other man who is making an input into the man. 
You are studying and changing his relation to the machines by virtue of the 
fact that you are studying him.” Fremont-Smiths introduction of the ob- 
server was addressed by Stroud in a revealing image that sought to convert 
the observer into a man-in-the-middle. “The human being is the most mar- 
velous set of instruments,” Stroud observed, “but like all portable instru- 
ment sets the human observer is noisy and erratic in operation. However, if 
these are all the instruments you have, you have to work with them until 
something better comes along .” 32 In Stroud s remark, the man is converted 
from an open-ended system into a portable instrument set. The instrument 
may not be physically connected to two mechanistic terminals, the image 
implied, but this lack of tight connection only makes the splice invisible. It 
does not negate the suture that constructs the human as an information- 
processing machine spliced into a closed circuit that ideally should be 
homeostatic in its operation, however noisy it is in practice. 

Fremont-Smith responded: “You cannot possibly, Dr. Stroud, eliminate 
the human being. Therefore what I am saying and trying to emphasize is 
that, with all their limitations, it might be pertinent for those scientific in- 
vestigators at the general level, who find to their horror that we have to work 
with human beings, to make as much use as possible of the insights avail- 

Contesting tor the Body of Information / 69 

able as to what human beings are like and how they operate.” 33 As his 
switch to formal address indicates, Fremont-Smith was upset at the recu- 
peration of his comment back into the ideology of objectivism. His com- 
ment cuts to the heart of the objection agai 11st reflexivity. Just as with 
MacKays model of structural information, reflexivity opens the man-in- 
the-middle to psychological complexity, so that he can no longer be con- 
structed as a black box functioning as an input/ output device. The fear is 
that under these conditions, reliable quantification becomes elusive or im- 
possible and science slips into subjectivity, which to many conferees meant 
that it was not real science at all. Confirming traditional ideas of how sci- 
ence should be done in a postwar atmosphere that was already clouded by 
the hysteria of McCarthyism, homeostasis implied a return to normalcy in 
more than one sense. 

The thrust of Fremont-Smith s observations was, of course, to intimate 
that psychological complexity was unavoidable. The responses of other 
participants reveal that this implication was precisely what they were most 
concerned to deny. They especially disliked reflexive considerations that 
took the personal form of suggesting that their statements were not asser- 
tions about the world but were revelations of their own internal states. The 
primary spokesperson for this disconcerting possibility was Lawrence 
Kubie, a psychoanalyst from the Yale University Psychiatric Clinic. In cor- 
respondence, Kubie enraged other participants by interpreting their criti- 
cisms of his theories as evidence of their subconscious resistances rather 
than as matters for scientific debate. In his presentations he was more tact- 
ful, but the reflexive thrust of his arguments remained clear. His presenta- 
tions occupy more space in the published transcripts than those of any 
other participant, composing about one-sixth of the total. Although he met 
with repeated skepticism among the physical scientists, he continued to 
defend his position. At the center of his explanation was the multiply 
encoded nature of language, which operated at once as an instrument that 
the speaker could use to communicate and as a reflexive mirror that re- 
vealed more than the speaker knew. Like MacKays theory of information, 
Kubie s psychoanalytic approach built reflexivity into the model. Also like 
MacKays theory, Kubies argument met the greatest (conscious?) resis- 
tance in the demand for reliable quantification. 

Kubie s ideas will serve as a springboard for looking at the role that re- 
flexivity played in the Macy Conferences and in the lives of some partici- 
pants after the conferences ended, particularly the lives of Margaret Mead 
and Gregory Bateson and their daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson. Con- 
trasting the Macy Conferences with Catherine Bateson s account of a simi- 

70 / Chapter Three 

lar conference held in 1968 will illustrate why the full implications of re- 
flexivity could scarcely have been admitted during the Macy period. Once 
the observer is made a part of the picture, cracks in the frame radiate out- 
ward until the perspectives that controlled context are fractured as irre- 
trievably as a safety-glass windshield hit by a large rock. The Macy 
participants were right to feel wary about reflexivity. Its potential was every 
bit as explosive as they suspected. 

Kubie s Last Stand 

Lawrence Kubie had been trained as a neurophysiologist. He won McCul- 
loch’s admiration for his 1930 paper suggesting that neuroses were caused 
by reverberating loops similar to those McCulloch later modeled in neural 
nets. 34 In midcareer Kubie converted to psychoanalysis. By the time of the 
Macy Conferences, he was affiliated with the hard-line Freudianism of the 
New York Psychoanalytic Institute. In his presentation at the sixth confer- 
ence, he laid out the fundamentals of his position. Neurotic processes are 
dominated by unconscious motivations. As goal-seeking behavior, these 
processes are ineffective because the unconscious pursues its goals in sym- 
bolic form. A man wants to feel secure, and money symbolizes this security 
for him. But when he acquires money, he still does not feel secure. He has 
acquired the symbol but lacks what the symbol represents. With the gap 
between desire and reality' yawning as widely as ever, he may actually feel 
more rather than less anxious as he approaches his putative goal. 

Although McCulloch thought of Kubie as an experimentalist, from the 
beginning of the conferences Kubie resisted the reductive approach that 
was characteristic of McCulloch’s work. At the first conference, Kubie ex- 
pressed uneasiness over reducing complex psychological phenomena to 
mechanistic models equating humans and automata. At the sixth confer- 
ence he was still resisting. In “Neurotic Potential and Human Adaptation,” 
he explained why he had not addressed feedback mechanisms : “I wanted to 
make clear the complexity and subtlety of the neurotic process as it is en- 
countered clinically. Without this we are constantly in danger of oversim- 
plifying the problem so as to scale it down for mathematical treatment.” 35 
Instead of mechanistic models, his formulations emphasized the reflexivity 
of psychological processes. At the seventh conference, in “The Relation of 
Symbolic Function in Language Formation and in Neurosis,” he insisted 
on “the fact that the human organism has two symbolic functions and not 
one. One is language. The other is neurosis.” Moreover, the two functions 
converge into the same utterance. Fremont-Smith drove the point home. 

Contesting for the Body of Information / 71 

“What Dr. Kubie is really trying to say is that language is a double coding: 
both a statement about the outside and a statement about the inside. It is 
that doubleness which gives this conscious/unconscious quality to it.” 36 

In this view, a statement intended as an observation of the external world 
is pierced by reflections of the speakers interior state, including neurotic 
processes of which the speaker is not conscious. If a scientist denies this is 
the case, insisting that he or she speaks solely about external reality, these 
objections themselves can be taken as evidence of unconscious motiva- 
tions. F or experimentalists like McCulloch, concerned to give an objective 
account of mental processes, psychoanalysis was the devil’s plaything be- 
cause it collapsed the distance between speaker and language, turning 
what should be scientific debate into a tar baby that clung to them the more 
they tried to push it away. 

The damage that this view of reflexive utterance could do to scientific 
objectivity was dramatically laid out by McCulloch in a 1953 address to the 
Chicago Literary Club. Entitled “The Past of a Delusion,” the speech was a 
fiery' denunciation of Freudian psychoanalysis. 37 If all scientific utterance 
is tinged with subjectivity, McCulloch felt, them scientific theory must inex- 
tricably be tied to the foibles and frailties of humans as subjective beings. 
To show the disastrous effects that this close coupling could have on sci- 
ence, McCulloch took as his case study Freudian psychoanalysis, a theory' 
that in his view both promoted the idea of close coupling and itself insidi- 
ously instantiated it. McCulloch ripped into Freud, suggesting that Freud 
had turned to psychoanalysis because he had wanted to make more money 
than he would have as a Jewish medical doctor. McCulloch recounted 
Freuds sex life, intimating that Freud put sexuality at the heart of his the- 
ory' because he was sexually frustrated himself. McCulloch denounced psy- 
choanalysts as charlatans who, motivated by greed, kept treating their 
patients as long as those patients had money to pay'. He sneered at the 
empirical evidence used by Freud and other psychoanalysts. In his ironic 
conclusion, McCulloch cautioned his audience not to try to argue with psy- 
choanalysts. All they would get for their pains, he predicted, were psycho- 
analytic interpretations of their objections as evidence of their own 
unconscious hostilities. 

Kubie learned of this speech from a colleague who had heen in the audi- 
ence. 38 Although McCulloch went out of his way' to exempt Kubie from his 
general scorn for psychoanalysis (in a 1950 letter to F remont-Smith, he had 
written, “Of all the psychoanalysts I know, [Kubie] has the clearest head for 
theory'”), 39 the attack was too stinging not to draw a rejoinder. As pat as 
McCulloch would have wished, Kubie interpreted the speech as a sign of 

72 / Chapter Three 

McCulloch’s own psychological distress. Speaking to a colleague, Kubie 
noted that McCulloch’s “vitriole may be due to an accumulation of personal 
frustrations of his own displaced onto analysis.” 40 Later, when he heard 
about McCulloch’s erratic behavior during a presentation at Yale, he wrote 
to McCulloch’s host, sending a copy of the letter to Fremont-Smith: “I am 
distressed by this news about Warren ... in him the boundary between 
sickness and health has always been narrow” (p. 137). Kubie even tried to 
arrange for psychoanalysts in the Boston area to meet with McCulloch “on 
a social pretext if necessary.” with a view to getting him the “help” that 
Kubie thought he needed (p. 138). As Steve Heims observes in his account 
of these incidents, McCulloch would have been enraged had he known 
about Kubie s attempts at intervention. 

McCulloch’s “The Past of a Delusion” is vivid evidence that Fremont- 
Smith’s attempts at reconciliation between psychoanalysts and physical sci- 
entists did not succeed. Kubie was well aware of the experimentalists’ 
attitudes. After repeated attempts to win them over, he delivered his final 
presentation at the ninth conference in what sounds like a state of con- 
trolled rage. He likened the supposed “troublemaker” psychiatrist to “a 
naturalist, reporting on the facts of human nature as observed by him.” By 
contrast, he noted, the physical scientists ignore complex psychological 
phenomena in favor of the simplifications of an abstract model. “The ex- 
perimentalist and mathematician then offer their explanation, whereupon, 
the naturalist presents additional observations which confront the experi- 
mentalist and the mathematician with an even more complex version of 
natural phenomena.” As the cycle continues, “these new complexities are 
accepted with increasing reluctance and skepticism.” 41 In these remarks 
Kubie presented his version of his presentations at the Macy Conferences. 
He merely reported on the facts, whereas the others offered inadequate 
mechanistic explanations for them. This characterization ignores, of 
course, the Freudian framework he used to interpret his colleagues’ be- 
havior, a framework at least as theory-laden in its observations as anything 
McCulloch proposed. 42 

I think of this presentation, loaded with controlled anger as if in 
point/counterpoint to McCulloch’s extravagant display of anger in his 
speech of the following year, as Kubie’s last stand. The resistance it de- 
scribes and inscribes went in both directions, from the psychoanalyst to the 
experimentalist and from the experimentalist to psychoanalyst. F or the ex- 
perimentalists, psychoanalysis strengthened the chain of association that 
bound reflexivity together with subjectivity, for it added to the already 
daunting problems of quantification the unfalsifiable notion of the uncon- 

Contesting for the Body of Information / 73 

scious. Itis no wonder that reflexivity came to seem, formanyofthe partic- 
ipants, a dead end for legitimate scientific inquiry. 

Even as one version of reflexivity fizzled out, other versions were being 
constructed in terms that made them more productive, in part because 
these versions avoided associating reflexivity with the unconscious. Temple 
Burling, reading the published transcripts in 1954, wrote to McCulloch: “I 
was surprised at the jamb that the group got into at this late date over the 
question of ‘the unconscious.’ It seems to me that is putting the cart before 
the horse. It isn’t unconscious neuro activity that is puzzling but conscious. 
Consciousness is the great mystery.” 43 Burling’s comments point to an- 
other way into reflexivity, away taken by a handful of participants, including 
Heinz von Foerster, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson. Though they 
were not necessarily opposed to psychoanalytic interpretation, it was not 
the focus of their attention. The scale on which they wanted to play their 
tunes did not run up and down the conscious/ unconscious keyboard. 
Rather, they wanted to create models that would take into account the ob- 
servers role in constructing the system. The important dichotomy for them 
was observer/system, and the important problems were how to locate the 
observer inside the system and the system inside the observer. 

Circling the Observer 

In 1969, near the end of his career, Fremont- Smith wrote (or rather, had his 
secretary write) to participants of the various Maey Conferences that he 
had organized over three decades, asking for their evaluation of the inter- 
disciplinary programs and the discussion formats. The inquiry was clearly a 
career-closing move; he was looking for affirmation of what he considered 
his lifework. Some of the replies were disarmingly frank. Jimmie Savage 
wrote about how it felt to be a young man allowed to ‘‘hobnob with such a di- 
verse group of illustrious and brilliant people.” He recalled that he had fre- 
quently found himself thinking that the emperor had no clothes but 
wonderingifhe could trust his own feelings. He confessed, “Cybernetics it- 
self seemed to me to be mostly baloney.” 44 R. W. Gerard expressed similar 
dissatisfactions, recalling being “intensely frustrated by the perpetual tan- 
gents to tangents that developed during a meeting and the rare satisfaction 
of intellectual closure and completion of any line of thought or argument.” 
He added, “You may recall that this frustration was sufficient so that I did 
not wish to attend later meetings.” 45 These responses are interesting 
not only because they throw light on the conferences but also because 
they talk frankly about feelings. “Affect ran high,” Savage recalled. In the 

7 4 / Chapter Three 

transcripts, by contrast, emotions enter the discussion only as objects for 
scientific modeling. Almost never are they articulated as something the 
participants are experiencing. The contrast between the letters and the 
transcripts illuminates the scientific ethos that ruled at the meetings. Emo- 
tions were considered out of bounds for several reasons, all of which per- 
haps came down to the same reason. The framework of scientific inquiry 
had been constructed so as to ignore the observer. 

Heinz von Foerster, in his letter to Fremont-Smith, saw the inclusion of 
the observer as the central issue of cybernetics. 46 He noted that at the begin- 
ning of the century, with the advent of relativity theory and the Uncertainty 
Principle, “a most enigmatic object was discovered which until then was 
carefully excluded from all scientific discourse: the ‘observer.’ “Who is lie?’ 
was the question, indignantly asked by those who subscribed to a sour grape 
strategy, and seriously asked by those who felt that any science worth its name 
must include the subject that makes the observations at the first place.” 
There were no precedents for this inclusion, he continued. “The whole 
methodology of a science that includes the observer had to be developed 
from scratch.” He generously credited Fremont-Smith with the idea of 
bringing together people rather than disciplines and thus placing relation- 
ships at the center of the discussions (although the transcripts rarely ac- 
knowledge these relationships). He also commented that Fremont-Smith 
understood that including the observer would have to be an interdisciplinary' 
task. In establishing the focus as “problems of communication,” Fremont- 
Smith hoped the Macy group would see that the topic required an “intensive 
and comprehensive study of man. ” Thus the sciences were to be unified by an 
overarching framework that could simultaneously explain “man” and the 
people who studied “man.” Cybernetics was to provide that framework. 

In March 1976, two decades after the conferences had ended, Margaret 
Mead and Gregory Bateson were sitting with Stewart Brand at Bateson’s 
kitchen table in a rare joint interview. Brand asked them about the Macy 
Conferences. They agreed that including the observer was one of the cen- 
tral problems raised by the cybernetic paradigm. Reaching for a scrap of 
paper, Bateson sketched a diagram (which Brand included in the published 
interview) of the communication system as it was envisioned before cyber- 
netics. The drawing shows a black box with input, output, and feedback 
loops within the box. The space labeled “Engineer” remains outside the 
box. A second drawing represents Bateson’s later understanding of cyber- 
netics. Here the first black box, along with the names “Wiener, Bateson, 
Mead,” is encapsulated within a larger box. In this drawing, the observers 
are included within the system rather than looking at it from the out- 

Contesting for the Body of I n f o r m a t i o n / 75 

side. The interview turned to a discussion of the dynamics that had pre- 
vailed at the Macy Conferences. Mead commented, “Kubie was a very im- 
portant person at that point,” She added: “McCulloch had a grand design in 
his mind. He got people into that conference, who he then kept from talk- 
ing.” Bateson continued, “Yes, he had a design for how the shape of the con- 
versation would run over five years — what had to be said before what else 
could be said.” When Brand asked what that design was, Bateson an- 
swered, “Who knows?” But Mead thought it was “more or less what hap- 
pened.” 4 ' 

Brand wanted to know why cybernetics had run out of steam. “What 
happened?” he asked repeatedly. His sense of the situation is confirmed by 
correspondence exchanged between the transcript editors — Heinz von 
Foerster, Margaret Mead, and Hans Teuber — after the tenth conference 
in 1953. Fremont-Smith and McCulloch wanted the transcripts published, 
just as the transcripts for the previous four conferences had been pub- 
lished. But Teuber disagreed, noting that the discussions were too 
rambling and unfocused; if published, he said, they would be an embar- 
rassment. Although he was the junior member of the editorial board, he 
stood his ground. He wrote to Fremont-Smith, sending a copy of the letter 
to McCulloch, that if the others decided to publi sh over his objections, he 
wanted his name removed from the list of editors. 48 As the junior member, 
he had the most to lose; the others already had established reputations. 
McCulloch must have written a stiff note in reply, for Teuber answered de- 
fensively. He insisted that the issue was not his reputation but the quality of 
the transcripts. “F rom your note, it is obvious that I sound stuffy to you and 
Walter. Do tell him that I wanted to get off the list of editors, not because I 
am worried about reputations, but simply because I can’t do enough for this 
transcript to get it into any sort of shape. The transactions of this last meet- 
ing simply do not add to the earlier ones — they detract. Granted, there are 
a few sparks, but there is not enough of the old fire. I owed it to you and 
Frank Fremont-Smith to speak my mind on this matter.” 49 Mead worked 
out a compromise. The three speakers would publish their talks as formal 
papers, and McCulloch’s summary’ of all the conferences would be used as 
an introduction. No one thought of suggesting more conferences or more 
transcripts. It was the end of an era. 

But not the end of reflexivity. Although a reflexive view of cybernetics 
failed to coalesce into a coherent theory during the Macy Conferences, 
Bateson did not want to let the idea go. He determined to go ahead on his 
own. H e organized a conference in July 1968 to explore how the reflexive 
implications of cybernetics could provide the basis for a new epistemology. 

7 6 / Chapter Three 

and he invited a group of scientists, social scientists, and humanists. In- 
cluded were Warren McCulloch and Gordon Pask, both central players 
in cybernetics, along with Mary Catherine Bateson, known as Catherine 
(to her father as “Cap”), an anthropologist specializing in comparative reli- 

Out of this week-long conference came Catherines 1972 book. Our 
Own Metaphor . 50 Her account of this conference, in some ways a reflection 
of the Macy Conferences, contrasts sharply with the Macy transcripts. The 
best explanation for this difference, I think, is epistemological. Catherine 
assumes that of course the observer affects what is seen, so she takes care to 
tell her readers about her state of mind and situation at the time. She re- 
counts, for example, finding out that she was pregnant in the months pre- 
ceding the conference; how awed she felt by the life that, whether she 
consciously attended to it or not, continued to grow within her; and her 
devastation when the baby was born prematurely, lived for an afternoon, 
and died. Her grief was still fresh when she attended the conference, and it 
naturally colored, she feels, how she interpreted what she learned there. 

The difference between her account and the Macy transcripts does not 
lie in the fact that one is technical and the other anecdotal. It is obviously 
important to Catherine to understand, as clearly as possible, what each pre- 
senter is saying, and she skillfully guides her reader through presentations 
fully as complex, technical, and detailed as any' in the Macy transcripts. 
Rather, the difference lies in her attitude toward her material and her de- 
termination to include as much of the context as she can. She takes care to 
tell her readers not only what ideas were exchanged but also how the 
people looked and her interpretation of how they were feeling. In addition 
to the words exchanged, she includes appearance, body language, and 
emotional atmosphere. At the Macy Conferences, her mother, Margaret 
Mead, had repeatedly cautioned that the transcripts were a purely verbal 
record and therefore represented only a fraction of the communication 
taking place. Mead wanted a much fuller record that would include “pos- 
ture, gesture, and intonation.” 51 Two decades later, Catherine fulfilled that 
desire in her precisely crafted descriptions. 

Here is Catherine’s account of Warren McCulloch; “Warren had 
bright, fierce eyes and held his head dropped low between thin shoul- 
ders. He had white hair and a white beard and curious blend of glee and 
grief, of belligerence and gentleness” ( OOM , pp. 23-24). When he gave 
a presentation, Catherine strained to follow his ideas and found it odd 
that he was not more responsive to the needs and situations of those who 
w’ere listening. “More than anyone else present, Warren tended to use an 

Contesting for the Body of Information / 77 

uncompromisingly technical vocabulary, referring to scientists I knew 
nothing of and calling on unfamiliar mathematics and neurophysiology. 
As I listened I kept checking to see whether I was sorting out what each 
example was about, what kind of thing he was trying to say in this inter- 
disciplinary context where not more than two or three people could 
follow the substance of most of his examples” (OOM, p. 65). In her con- 
textualized account, McCulloch’s fierce commitment to an “empirical 
epistemology” carries with it an obvious price — a tendency toward de- 
contextualization that made him less than effective in communicating 
with this audience. 

Catherine Bateson included in her prologue Gregor)' Batesons docu- 
ment that set the agenda for the conference and laid out the problems it 
would explore. The influence of cybernetics as it had evolved during the 
Macy Conferences is apparent throughout. Equally clear are Gregory s re- 
visions, critiques, and transformations of those concepts. He indicated that 
he wanted participants to consider “three cybernetic or homeostatic sys- 
tems”: the individual, the society, and the larger global ecosystem in which 
both are embedded. Although consciousness would be considered as “an 
important component in the coupling of these systems” (OOM, p. 13), epis- 
temologically its role was limited. From an “enormously great plethora of 
mental events,” it chooses a few on which to focus (OOM, p. 16). An impor- 
tant factor guiding this choice, he hypothesized, is “purpose.” Problems 
arise when this purposeful selection is taken as the whole. “If consciousness 
has feedback upon the remainder of mind and if consciousness deals only 
with a skewed sample of the events of the total mind, then there must exist 
a systematic (i.e., non-random) difference between the conscious views of 
self and the world and the true nature of self and the world” (OOM, p. 16). 
Thus the emphasis on “purpose” so central to the Macy Conferences be- 
came here not an assumed orientation but a lens that consciousness wears 
and that distorts what it sees. Specifically, this lens obscures “the cybernetic 
nature of self and the world,” an obfuscation that “tends to be imperceptible 
to consciousness” (OOM, p. 16). 

Nowhere is the transformation that Gregory worked on the Macy Con- 
ferences clearer than in what he considers the “cybernetic nature” of world 
and self. For him, cybernetics is no longer the homeostatic model of the 
M acy Conferences ( although echoes of this language still linger). Rather, it 
has become the reflexivity of the larger box that he would sketch a decade 
later at his kitchen table. Equally striking is the changed significance of 
separating a system from its surrounding context. For Bateson, deeontex- 
tualization is not a necessary scientific move but a systematic distortion. 

7 8 / Chapter Three 

The inclination of the conscious mind toward purpose makes it focus on an 
arc of causally related events leading to a perceived goal. Obliterated or for- 
gotten is the matrix in which these arcs are embedded. A truly cybernetic 
approach, for Bateson, concentrates on the couplings that bind the parts 
into interactive wholes. 

The revisionist thrust of Gregorys view of cybernetics is apparent in a 
letter he wrote to Catherine in June 1977, a year after his interview with 
Stewart Brand. The letter begins with Gregory remarking on how reread- 
ing Our Own Metaphor vividly brought the conference back to his mind. 
Then Gregory' lays out the gist of his new “cybernetic” epistemology. He 
starts from the premise that we never know the world as such. We know 
only' what our sensory perceptions construct for us. In this sense, we know 
nothing about the world. But we know something, and what we know is the 
end result of the internal processes we use to construct our inner world. 
Thus we know ourselves as complex beings, including processes that 
extend below consciousness and beyond ourselves out into the world, 
through the inner world available to a consciousness that exists only be- 
cause of those processes. “We are our epistemology” is Gregorys formula- 
tion. 52 Catherines phrasing is similar: “Each person is his own central 
metaphor” (OOM, p. 285). In this view, the dualism between subject and 
object disappears, for the object as a thing in itself cannot exist for us. There 
is only the subjective, inner world. The world, as this “cybernetics” con- 
structs it, is a monism. Nevertheless, it is not solipsistic, for Gregory be- 
lieves that the microcosm of the inner world is functional within the larger 
ecosystem only because it is an appropriate metaphor for the macrocosm. 
In her concluding chapter, Catherine amplifies on this view by supposing 
that we can understand the complexity of the outer world only because our 
codes for constructing the inner world are similarly diverse and complex. 
In this sense, we are a metaphor not only for ourselves but also for the larger 
system in which we are embedded. This leads her into a subtly nuanced 
analysis of couplings between inner world and outer world, including the 
insight that because the worlds are coupled, they must in the last analysis be 
regarded as a single system. 

For Gregory, McCulloch represents a Moses-like figure who could lead 
others to the brink of this new epistemology but was unable to enter into 
it himself. “His last speech makes a special sort of sense if you read it as 
spoken in that context,” Gregory' suggests. 53 Catherine uses McCulloch’s 
speech to end her account of the conference, and the speech is worth quot- 
ing in detail. “I am by nature a warrior, and wars don’t make sense any- 
more,” McCulloch begins (OOM, p. 311). The recognition rings true. I 

Contesting for the Body of Information / 79 

think of the statement in his summary of the Macy Conferences: “Our most 
notable agreement is that we have learned to know one another a bit better, 
and to fight fair in our shirt sleeves . ” 54 For him, scientific debate was a form 
of agonistic conflict. He continues in his speech by recalling the nitty-gritty 
details of his experimental work, its difficulties and funny moments. Then 
his thoughts turn to human mortality. He is an old man; although he can- 
not know it now, within a vear he will die. Earlier in the conference, he 
“snapped” (says Catherine): “I don’t particularly like people. Never have. 
Man to my mind is about the nastiest, most destructive of all the animals. I 
don’t see any reason, if he can evolve machines that can have more fun than 
he himself can, why they shouldn’t take over, enslave us, quite happily. 
They might have a lot more fun. Invent better games than we ever did” 
(OOM, p.226). 

Now, at the penultimate moment of the conference, of Catherine’s book 
that she will dedicate to him, and of his life, he confesses to mortal feelings. 
“ ‘The difficulty is that we, who are not single-cell organisms, cannot simply 
divide and pass on our programs. We have to couple and there is behind this 
a second requirement.’ Warren began to weep. “We learn . . . that there’s a 
utility in death because . . . the world goes on changing and we can’t keep 
up with it. If I have any disciples, you can say this of every one of them, they 
think for themselves’” (OOM, p. 311). 

If Gregorys Bateson thought of himself as McCulloch’s disciple, the epi- 
taph that McCulloch wanted for himself is certainly true in Bateson’s case, 
for he both learned from his mentor and went beyond him. Taking the cy- 
bernetic paradigm of McCulloch’s “empirical epistemology” and making it 
into “our own metaphor,” Bateson reintroduced the reflexive dimension 
that McCulloch had fought so hard to exorcise when it was associated with 
psychoanalysis. Yet Bateson’s reinterpretation succeeded in articulating a 
version of reflexivity that did not depend on a psychoanalytic entanglement 
of conscious and unconscious meanings in scientific statements. Moreover, 
his epistemology gave an important role to objective constraints, for it in- 
sisted that only those constructions that were compatible with reality were 
conducive to long-term survival. And survival was very much the name of 
the game for Catherine and Gregory' Bateson. The larger issues they 
wanted their conference to address included the increasing degradation 
of the environment. In looking for an epistemology that would proceed 
from a sense of the world’s complexity, they did not give up the idea that 
some constructions are better than others. 

Let me now anticipate connections between the path the Batesons fol- 
lowed and those paths traced in subsequent chapters. In breaking new con- 

So / Chapter Three 

ceptual ground, Gregory Bateson drew on a famous article on the frog’s vi- 
sual cortex. The article had been eoauthored by several people from 
the Macy Conferences, including Warren McCulloch, Walter Pitts, and 
Jerome Lettvin; also listed as coauthor was a newcomer who did not attend 
the Macy Conferences, Humberto Maturana. 55 In using this article to de- 
velop “our own metaphor,” Bateson went where no experimentalist could 
easily follow, for he made speculative leaps that would take decades of ex- 
perimental work to confirm. He went into the inner world and turned it in- 
side out, so to speak, so that the inner world became a metaphor for the 
outer world. Maturana was to follow a similar yet different path. He went 
into the inner world and insisted that it can’t be turned inside out, that it is a 
metaphor for nothing other than its own creation of itself as a system. This 
is the theory of autopoiesis, which we will discuss in chapter 6. Maturana 
did not identify with cybernetics as much as Bateson did, and he did not 
generally use that term to describe his work. Nevertheless, his theory took 
up certain problems that were left hanging after the Macy Conferences 
ended. Like Bateson, Maturana found reflexivity more promising than 
homeostasis. Also like Bateson, he both appropriated concepts from the 
Macy context and changed them profoundly. 

Janet Freud/Freed 

Like Bateson, Mead, and Brand sitting at a kitchen table on that March 
morning in 1976, 1 am sitting at my kitchen table in March 1996. I’m look- 
ing at the pages on which their interview is published. I’m particularly in- 
trigued by a photograph that Brand included, one evidently given to him by 
Mead or Bateson. It’s a large picture, too large to include in one frame, so it 
stretches across two pages. The caption identifies the setting as the 1952 
Macy Conference — the ninth, the conference with the last real Macy tran- 
script, for the tenth volume (as noted above) was not a transcript but was in- 
stead formal papers. This was the conference of Kubie’s last stand. The 
photograph shows a large group of men and one woman — Margaret Mead 
— sitting around cloth-covered tables pulled into a U-shape. A speaker 
stands at the mouth of the U; the caption identifies him as Yehoshua Bar- 
Hillel. But wait. That must mean the date is incorrect, since Bar-Hillel 
spoke at the tenth conference. He wasn’t present at the ninth. So this pho- 
tograph must have been taken in 1953, at the conference in which the con- 
versation was so meandering and dilatory that it couldn’t be published. I 
wonder where the caption came from. I imagine Bateson digging out the 
photograph and giving it to Brand while he and Mead clue Brand in on who 

Contesting for the Body of In f o r m at i on / 8 i 

was who as Brand scribbles down the names, probably while they are all still 
sitting at the kitchen table. 

Now 1 notice that Mead isn’t the only woman in the picture. Another 
woman sits with her back to the photographer, her arms extended, hands 
reaching out to a machine 1 can’t quite see. The caption identifies her as 
‘Janet Freud,” but I know this can’t be right either. She must be Janet 
Freed, listed in the published transcripts as “assistant to the conference 
program.” I have seen her name in the typed transcripts of the editorial 
meetings that followed the later conferences, and I know more or less what 
she did. 

She was responsible for turning these men’s (and a couple of women’s) 
words into type. She was the one who listened to the tape-recordings of the 
early conferences and strained to catch inaudible strange words. When she 
sent McCulloch the typed transcript of the second Macy conference, she 
plaintively wrote that she knew there were “many, many blank spaces” but 
that Dr. Fremont-Smith had ordered her and her staff to listen to the 
recordings only twice and to type what they heard. 56 Evidently, transcrib- 
ing the tape-recordings was taking too much staff time, and Fremont- 
Smith did not want to waste his resources that way — his resources, her 

The quirk of memory or handwriting that made Brand call her “Janet 
F reud” seems eerily appropriate, for this was the woman who, like F reud’s 
patients, had no voice in the transcripts, although the transcripts have a 
voice that we can read only because of her. She was the one who presided 
over the physical transformations of signifiers as they went from tape- 
recording to transcript to revised copy to galley to book. Others — the edi- 
tors Teuber, Mead, and von Foerster, the organizer Fremont-Smith, and 
the chairman McCulloch — worried about content — but her focus was the 
materiality of the processes that make sounds into words, marks into books. 
She did the best she could, but the transcription took much time and she 
had many other things to do. When she was told not to take time, the tran- 
script had more ellipses than words, and she felt bad. What to do? She sug- 
gested to Fremont-Smith that he and McCulloch insist the speakers 
deliver drafts of their talks ahead of time. 57 Then she wouldn’t have to 
strain to listen to tape-recordings that were noisy beyond endurance by to- 
day’s standards . She wouldn’t have to guess at unfamiliar words (the manu- 
scripts of the transcripts are peppered with misspellings). She learned 
stenotypography (or perhaps arranged to hire someone else who knew 7 it) 
so that the words could be transcribed directly into the machine. This, com- 
bined with the drafts of the presentations, allowed her to come up with rea- 

82 / Chapter Three 

sonable transcripts of both presentation and discussion without driving 
herself crazy. At an editorial meeting, when others suggested that it was too 
much work to pressure the speakers to get their drafts into the office ahead 
of time, she spoke up. The drafts were essential. She defended the other 
woman who was lower on the totem pole than she was— her staff— and 
said that this woman could be expected to do only so much. She didn’t say 
so, but surely she had herself in mind as well. 

Janet Freeds role in the Macy group is teasingly hinted at in the tran- 
scripts to the 1949 Editors’ Meeting. Fremont-Smith depended on her to 
keep him on track. He decided to make up a little booklet for the Macy 
Conference chairmen to supply them with guidelines, commenting, “It oc- 
curred to us, in fact, it was Miss Freeds suggestion ...” Elsewhere, when 
he realized that he had “jumped around a good deal” and gotten off track, 
he referred to the list of topics that Freed had made up for him to follow. 58 
When one of the men remarked that there were now thirteen Macy groups 
and wondered if his office was going “to be able to do it,” Fremont-Smith 
must have looked at Freed, for he uttered a comment that, in this profes- 
sional and overwhelmingly male meeting, comes across as almost shocking 
in its personal nature, “You write and get a lovely smile. Do you have any- 
thing else you want to say at this point?” “No,” she replies, not elaborating. 
Nowhere else in the Macy transcripts, to my knowledge, does someone 
simply answer, “No.” Perhaps she was embarrassed, or perhaps she simply 
felt her position made it inappropriate for her to say more. 

Fremont-Smith s remark, faithfully preserved by the transcription tech- 
nologies that Janet F reed oversaw, has a slightly odd phrasing, and I puzzle 
over it. She writes and gets a smile, as if she had to go somewhere to fetch it, 
as if it were produced elsewhere and transported back to her face. I feel I 
don’t know where the smile comes from because Janet Freed effaces her- 
self. Rarely do we see her directly; we glimpse her largely through her re- 
flections in the speech of others. More than anyone else, she qualifies as the 
outside observer who watches a system that she constructs through the 
marks she makes on paper, although the system itself has a great deal of 
trouble including her within the names of those people who are authorized 
to speak and make meaning. 

What are we to make of J anet F. , this sign of the repressed, this F reudian 
slip of a female who, with a flick of a “u” (the U -shaped table at which she 
sits?), goes from Freed to Freud, Freud to Freed? Thinking of her, I am re- 
minded of Dorothy Smith’s suggestion that men of a certain class are prone 
to decontextualization and reification because they are in a position to com- 
mand the labors of others. 09 “Take a letter, Miss Freed,” he says. Miss 

Contesting for the Body of Information / 83 

F reed comes in. She gets a lovely smile. The man speaks, and she writes on 
her stenography pad (or perhaps on her stenography typewriter) . The man 
leaves. He has a plane to catch, a meeting to attend. When he returns, the 
letter is on his desk, awaiting his signature. F rom his point of view, what has 
happened? He speaks, giving commands or dictating words, and things 
happen. A woman comes in, marks are inscribed onto paper, letters appear, 
conferences are arranged, books are published. Taken oat of context, his 
words fly, by themselves, into books. The lull burden of the labor that 
makes these things happen is for him only an abstraction, a resource di- 
verted from other possible uses, because he is not the one performing the 

Miss Freed has no such illusions. Embedded in context, she knows that 
words never make things happen by themselves — or rather, that the only 
things they can make happen are other abstractions, like getting married or 
opening meetings. They can’t put marks onto paper. They can’t get letters 
in the mail. They can’t bring twenty-five people together at the right time 
and in the right place, at the Beekman Hotel in New York City, where white 
tablecloths and black chalkboards await them. For that, material and em- 
bodied processes must be used — processes that exist never in isolation but 
always in contexts where the relevant boundaries are permeable, nego- 
tiable, instantiated. 

On a level beyond words, beyond theories and equations, in her body 
and her arms and her fingers and her aching back, Janet Freed knows that 
information is never disembodied, that messages don’t flow by themselves, 
and that epistemology isn’t a word floating through the thin, thin air until it 
is connected up with incorporating practices. 

Chapter Four 


Of all the implications that first-wave cybernetics conveyed, perhaps none 
was more disturbing and potentially revolutionary than the idea that the 
boundaries of the human subject are constructed rather than given. Con- 
ceptualizing control, communication, and information as an integrated 
system, cybernetics radically changed how boundaries were conceived. 
Gregory Bateson brought the point home when he puzzled his graduate 
students with a question koanlike in its simplicity, asking if a blind man’s 
cane is part of the man , 1 The question aimed to spark a mind-shift. Most of 
his students thought that human boundaries are naturally defined by epi- 
dermal surfaces. Seen from the cybernetic perspective coalescing into 
awareness during and after World War II, however, cybernetic systems are 
constituted by flows of information. In this viewpoint, cane and man join in 
a single system, for the cane funnels to the man essential information about 
his environment. The same is true of a hearing aid for a deaf person, a voice 
synthesizer for someone with impaired speech, and a helmet with a voice- 
activated firing control for a fighter pilot. 

This list is meant to be seductive, for over the space of a comma, it moves 
from modifications intended to compensate for deficiencies to inter- 
ventions designed to enhance normal functioning. Once this splice is 
passed, establishing conceptual limits to the process becomes difficult. In 
“A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” Donna Haraway wrote about the potential of 
the cyborg to disrupt traditional categories . 2 Fusing cybernetic device and 
biological organism, the cyborg violates the human/machine distinction; 
replacing cognition with neural feedback, it challenges the human-animal 
difference; explaining the behavior of thermostats and people through the- 
ories of feedback, hierarchical structure, and control, it erases the ani- 
mate/inanimate distinction. In addition to arousing anxiety, the cyborg can 


Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled / 85 

also spark erotic fascination: witness the female cyborg in Blade Runner. 
The flip side of the cyborg s violation of boundaries is what Haraway calls its 
“pleasurably tight coupling” between parts that are not supposed to touch. 
Mingling erotically charged violations with potent new fusions, the cyborg 
becomes the stage on which are performed contestations about the body 
boundaries that have often marked class, ethnic, and cultural differences. 
Especially when it operates in the realm of the Imaginary rather than 
through actual physical operations (which act as a reality check on fantasies 
about cyborgism), cybernetics intimates that body boundaries are up for 

As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have shown in their study of em- 
bodied metaphors, our images of our bodies, their limitations and possi- 
bilities, openings and self-containments, inform how we envision the 
intellectual territories we stake out and occupy. 3 When the body is revealed 
as a construct, subject to radical change and redefinition, bodies of knowl- 
edge are similarly apt to be seen as constructs, no more inevitable than the 
organic form that images them. At the same time that cybernetics was re- 
configuring the body as an informational system, it was also presenting 
itself as a science of information that would remap intellectual terrains. 
Branching out into disciplines as different as biology, psychology, and elec- 
trical engineering, it claimed to be a universal solvent that would dissolve 
traditional disciplinary boundaries. 4 Norbert Wiener, the father of cyber- 
netics, could be supposed to endorse this imperialist ambition. Yet, con- 
templating the penetration of cybernetics into social and humanistic fields, 
he found himself confronted with some disturbing questions. Where 
should the cybernetic dissolution of boundaries stop? At what point does 
the anxiety provoked by dissolution overcome the ecstasy? His writings tes- 
tify to both the exhilaration and the uneasiness that cybernetics generated 
when its boundary' disruptions threatened to get out of hand. They illus- 
trate the complex dynamics that marked the construction of the cyborg 
during the foundational period of the late 1940s and 1950s. 

As this brief summary suggests, to engage Wiener s work is to be struck 
by contradiction. Envisioning powerful new ways to equate humans and 
machines, he also spoke up strongly for liberal humanist values . A talk given 
to an audience of physicians in 1954 illustrates the breadth of his concern 
and ambivalence. 5 He predicted the existence of the automatic factory - , ar- 
gued that electronic computers were thinking machines capable of taking 
over many human decision-making processes, and cautioned that humans 
must not let machines become their masters. As I indicated in chapter 1, 
the values of liberal humanism — a coherent, rational self, the right of that 

86 / Chapter Four 

sell to autonomy and freedom, and a sense of agency linked with a belief in 
enlightened self-interest — deeply inform Wieners thinking. Often these 
values stand him in good stead, for example when he rejected the practice 
of lobotomy at a time when Lawrence Kubie, along with many others, was 
endorsing it. During World War II he frantically immersed himself in 
military-funded research, but after the war he announced his opposition to 
nuclear weapons and from then on refused to do military research. 6 The 
tension between Wieners humanistic values and the cybernetic viewpoint 
is everywhere apparent in his writing. On the one hand, he used cybernet- 
ics to create more effective killing machines (as Peter Galison has noted), 7 
applying cybernetics to self-correcting radar tuning, automated antiair- 
craft fire, torpedoes, and guided missiles. Yet he also struggled to envision 
the cybernetic machine in the image of a humanistic self. Placed alongside 
his human brother (sisters rarely enter this picture), the cybernetic ma- 
chine was to be designed so that it did not threaten the autonomous, self- 
regulating subject of liberal humanism. On the contrary, it was to extend 
that self into the realm of the machine. 

But the confluence of cybernetics with liberal humanism was not to run 
so smoothly. The parallel between self-regulating machinery and liberal 
humanism has a history 7 that stretches back into the eighteenth century, as 
Otto Mayr demonstrates in Authority , Liberty, and Automatic Machinery 
in Early Modem Europe . 8 Mayr argues that ideas about self-regulation 
were instrumental in effecting a shift from the centralized authoritarian 
control that characterized European political philosophy during the six- 
teenth and seventeenth centuries (especially in England, France, and Ger- 
many) to the Enlightenment philosophies of democracy, decentralized 
control, and liberal self-regulation. Because systems were envisioned as 
self-regulating, they could be left to work on their own — from the Invisible 
Hand of Adam Smith’s self-regulating market to the political philosophy of 
enlightened self-interest. These visions of self-regulating economic and 
political systems produced a complementary notion of the liberal self as an 
autonomous, self-regulating subject. By the mid-twentieth century, liberal 
humanism, self-regulating machinery, and possessive individualism had 
come together in an uneasy alliance that at once helped to create the cyborg 
and also undermined the foundations of liberal subjectivity. Philip K. Dick 
tapped into this potential instability when he used his fiction to pose a dis- 
turbing question: should a cybernetic machine, sufficiently powerful in its 
self-regulating processes to become fully conscious and rational, be al- 
lowed to own itself? 9 If owning oneself was a constitutive premise for lib- 
eral humanism, the cyborg complicated that premise by its figuring of a 

Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled / 87 

rational subject who is always already constituted by the forces of capitalist 

The inconsistencies in liberal philosophy that Dicks fiction exposes are 
also apparent in Wiener’s texts. His writing indulges in many of the prac- 
tices that have given liberalism a bad name among cultural critics: the ten- 
dency to use the plural to give voice to a privileged few while presuming to 
speak for everyone; the masking of deep structural inequalities by enfran- 
chising some while others remain excluded; and the complicity of the 
speaker in capitalist imperialism, a complicity that his rhetorical practices 
are designed to veil or obscure. The closest that Wiener comes to a critique 
of these complicities is a rigid machine he constructs in opposition to the 
cybernetic machine. This alien and alienating machine is invested with 
qualities he wants to purge from cybernetics, including rigidity, oppres- 
sion, militaristic regulation of thought and action, reduction of humans to 
antlike elements, manipulation, betrayal, and death. The scope of the cri- 
tique is limited, for it distances the negative values away from his projects 
instead of recognizing his complicity with them. When he predicted the au- 
tomatic factory, for example, he foresaw that it would result in large-scale 
economic displacements (with all the implications that this would have for 
working-class people as autonomous independent agents), but he offered 
no remedy other than the platitude that men must not let machines take 
over . 10 

Wiener was not unaware of the ironies through which cybernetics would 
imperil the very liberal humanist subject whose origins are enmeshed with 
self- regulating machinery. Throughout his mature writings, he struggled to 
reconcile the tradition of liberalism with the new cybernetic paradigm he 
was in the process of creating. When I think of him, I imagine him laboring 
mightily to construct the mirror of the cyborg. He stands proudly before 
this product of his reflection, urging us to look into it so that we can see our- 
selves as control-communication devices, differing in no substantial regard 
from our mechanical siblings. Then he happens to glance over his shoulder, 
sees himself as a cyborg, and makes a horrified withdrawal. What assump- 
tions underlie this intense ambivalence? What threads bind them together 
into something we might call a worldview? How are the ambivalences ne- 
gotiated, and when do they become so intense that the only way to resolve 
them is to withdraw? What can these complex negotiations tell us about the 
pleasures and dangers of the posthuman subjectivity that would soon dis- 
place the liberal humanist self? 

To explore these questions, we will begin with Wiener’s early work on 
probability. In his view, it is because the world is fundamentally probabilis- 

8 8 / Chapter Four 

tic that control is needed, for the path of future events cannot be accurately 
predicted. By the same token, control cannot be static or centralized, for 
then it would not be able to cope with unexpected developments. The ne- 
cessity' for a flexible, self-regulating system of control based on feedback 
from the system itself starts with the system thumbing its nose at Newton- 
ian predictability. From this, we will follow a web of sticky connections: a 
reinscription of homeostasis; an information construction that grows out of 
Wiener’s deep belief in a probabilistic universe; an interpretation of noise 
linking noise with entropy, degradation, and death; and above all, an ana- 
logical mode of thinking that moves easily across boundaries to identify (or 
construct) pattern similarities between very different lands of structures. 
As much as anything, it was these analogical moves that helped to construct 
the cyborg as Wiener envisioned it. All this from a man so uncomfortable 
with his own body that he could not throw horseshoes in even approxi- 
mately the right direction and had to abandon a career in biology because 
he was too clumsy to do the lab work. These physical characteristics are not, 
I shall argue, entirely irrelevant to the cybernetic viewpoint that Wiener 
was instrumental in forging. 

Of Molecules and Men: Cybernetics and Probability 

Like Venus, cybernetics was bom from the froth of chaos. Wieners impor- 
tant early work was done on Brownian motion, the random motion that 
molecules make as they collide with each other, bounce off each other, and 
collide again, as if they were manic bumper cars . 11 Given this chaos, it is im- 
possible to know the microstates in enough detail to predict from the laws 
of motion how individual molecules will behave. Therefore, probabilistic 
and statistical methods are required. (The Uncertainty Principle intro- 
duced additional complications of a profound nature by setting limits on 
how precisely positions and momenta can be known.) Probability calcula- 
tions are facilitated if one assumes that the chaotic motion is homogeneous, 
that is, that it is the same regardless of how the system is sliced to analyze it. 
This leads to the famous ergodic hypothesis: “an ensemble of dynamic sys- 
tems in some way traces in the course of time a distribution of parameters 
which is identical with the distribution of parameters of all systems at a 
given time .” 12 Following George David Birkhoff, Wiener helped to make 
this hypothesis more limited, precise, and mathematically rigorous than 
had Willard Gibbs when he first conceived the idea. 

Refining Gibbs’s methods and ideas, Wiener saw Gibbs as a seminal fig- 
ure not only for his own work but for all of twentieth-century science. “It 

Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled / 89 

is. . . Gibbs rather than Einstein or Heisenberg or Planck to whom we must 
attribute the first great revolution of twentieth century physics,” Wiener 
wrote in The Human Use of Human Beings. 13 Gibbs deserved this honor, 
Wiener believed, because he realized the deeper implications of probabil- 
ity theory. One explanation for this uncertainty is the limit placed on knowl- 
edge by the Uncertainty’ Principle, mentioned above. In addition to 
reflecting our ignorance of microstates, uncertainty' also stems from our 
finitude as human beings. Thirty years before this became an important el- 
ement in chaos theory 7 , Wiener shrewdly realized that initial conditions can 
never be known exactly because physical measurements are never com- 
pletely precise. “What w r e have to say about a machine or other dynamic 
system really concerns not what we must expect when the initial positions 
and momenta are given with perfect accuracy (which never occurs), 
but what we are to expect when they are given with attainable accuracy” 
(HU, p. 8). 

Related to these epistemological issues is the shift of orientation implicit 
in Gibbs’s approach. Rather than use probabilistic methods to address 
large numbers of particles (like the bumper cars), Gibbs used probability 7 to 
consider how different initial velocities and positions might cause a system 
to evolve in different ways. Thus, he considered not many sets within one 
world but many worlds generated from a single set or, in Wiener’s phrase, 
“all the worlds which are possible answers to a limited set of questions con- 
cerning our environment.” So important did Wiener consider this perspec- 
tive that he argued, “It is with this point of view at its core that the new 
science of Cybernetics began its development” (HU, p. 12). To see why 
Wiener considered the innovation profound, we have only to compare it 
with Laplace s famous boast that given the initial conditions, a being with 
enough computing power would be able to predict a system s evolution for 
eternity 7 . In this view, the universe is completely deterministic and know- 
able, as precise and predictable as a clock made by God — or, amounting to 
the same thing for Laplace, a clock governed by Newtons laws of motion. 
By contrast, the probabilistic world of Gibbs and Wiener operates like a 
baggy 7 pair of pants, holding together all right but constantly rearranging it- 
self every time one tries to sit down. 

Already steeped in probability 7 theory and inclined to view the world as 
one evolution realized from a range of possible worlds, Wiener thought 
about information in the same terms. Working more or less independently 
of Leon Brillouin and Claude Shannon, he came to similar conclusions. 14 
As we saw in chapter 3, Wiener defined information as a function of proba- 
bilities representing a choice of one message from a range of possible mes- 

90 / Chapter Four 

sages that might be sent. In a sense, he took Gibbs’s idea and substituted 
word for world. Instead of one world coming into being from among a 
galaxy of possible worlds, one message comes into being from a cacophony 
of possible messages. When the theory worked, Wiener took it as further 
confirmation that Gibbs’s approach expressed something fundamental 
about reality; the word and the world are both essentially probabilistic in 
their natures. This interpretation, though fascinating as a window into 
Wiener’s view of the relation between information and physical reality, se- 
riously understates the constructive aspect of information theory'. F ar from 
being a passive confirmation, information theory was an active extension of 
a probabilistic worldview into the new and powerfully synthetic realm of 
communication theory. We can now understand on a deeper level Wiener’s 
view of cybernetics as a universal theory of knowledge. Such a universal 
perspective would succeed, he thought, because it reflects the way that 
we — as finite, imperfect creatures — know the universe. Statistical and 
quantum mechanics deal with uncertainty on the microscale; communica- 
tion reflects and embodies it on the macroscale. Envisioning relations on 
the macroscale as acts of com mun ication was thus tantamount to extending 
the reach of probability into the social world of agents and actors. 

For us, in the late age of information, it may seem obvious that commu- 
nication should be understood as requiring control and that control should 
be construed as a form of communication. Underlying this construction, 
however, is a complex series of events, with its own seriated history of engi- 
neering problems, material forms, and bureaucratic structures — a history' 
that James Beniger has written about so well in The Control Revolution: 
Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society , 15 In 
broad outline, the forms of control moved from mechanical (a cam direct- 
ing a mechanical rod to follow a certain path) to thermodynamic (a gover- 
nor directing the action of a heat engine) to informational (cy'bernetic 
mechanisms of all kinds, from computers to the hypothalamus understood 
in cybernetic terms). In mechanical exchanges, determinism and pre- 
dictability loom large. When the center of interest turns to the furnace, 
with its fiery enactments of Brownian motion, probability necessarily en- 
ters the picture. 16 When information comes to the fore, probability' moves 
from being ignorance of microstates to becoming a fundamental attribute 
of the communication act. As each new form of exchange came to the fore, 
the older ones did not disappear. An automobile is essentially a heat engine, 
but it nevertheless continues to use levers and rods of the kind known since 
the classical era. Similarly, a computer is an information machine, but it also 
uses molecular processes governed by the laws of thermodynamics. The 

Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled / 91 

new forms are distinguished not by the disappearance of the old but rather 
by a shift in the nature of their control mechanisms, which in turn are de- 
termined by the kinds of exchanges the machine is understood to transact. 

The move toward cybernetic control theory is itself driven by feedback 
loops between theory and artifact, research and researcher. Envisioning 
different lands of exchanges demanded different kinds of control mecha- 
nisms, and constructing new control mechanisms facilitated the con- 
struction of more exchanges in that mode. 17 The circularity among 
experimenter, control mechanism, and system interface is part of the story 
I want to tell. This story includes not only the mechanisms of cybernetic 
systems but also the mindsets of those who constructed themselves and 
their machines in a cybernetic image. Wieners assumptions, as we have 
seen, were rooted in a probabilistic worldview. He realized that one of the 
subtle implications of this view is that messages are constituted, measured, 
and communicated not as things-in-themselves but as relational differ- 
ences between elements in a field. Communication is about relation, not 

Across the range of Wiener s writing, the rhetorical trope that figures 
most importantly is analog) 7 . Understanding communication as relation 
suggests a deeper reading of this figure. Analogy is not merely an ornament 
of language but is a powerful conceptual mode that constitutes meaning 
through relation. Seen in this way, analogy is a crucial operator in every- 
thing from Wiener s passion for mathematics to his advocacy of “black box” 
engineering and behaviorist philosophy. Indeed, cybernetics as a discipline 
could not have been created without analogy. When analogy is used to con- 
stitute agents in cybernetic discourse, it makes an end run around ques- 
tions of essence, for objects are constructed through their relations to other 
objects. Writing in the years immediately preceding and following World 
War II, Wiener anticipated some aspects of poststructuralist theories. He 
questioned whether humans, animals, and machines have any “essential” 
qualities that exist in themselves, apart from the web of relations that con- 
stituted them in discursive and communicative fields. “Whatever view we 
have of the ‘realities’ underlying our introspections and experiments and 
mathematical truths is quite secondary; any proposition which cannot be 
translated into a statement concerning the observable is nugatory,” he 
wrote in 1936 in “The Role of the Observer.” 18 Wiener also saw sense per- 
ception as working through analogy. In his most extreme pronouncement 
on the matter, he asserted, “Physics itself is merely a coherent way of de- 
scribing the readings of physical instruments” (a statement deeply regret- 
ted by his mathematical biographer, Pesi Masani.) 19 Among the mappings 

9 2 / Chapter Four 

in his view of the world-as-analogy were metaphors that overlaid mathe- 
matics onto emotion, sense perception onto communication, and ma- 
chines onto biological organisms. These mappings throw a different light 
on his attempts to reconcile cybernetics with a liberal humanist subject. If 
meaning is constituted through relation, then juxtaposing men and ma- 
chines goes beyond bringing two preexisting objects into harmonious rela- 
tion. Rather, the analogical relation constitutes both terms through the 
process of articulating their relationship. To see this meaning- making in 
process, let us turn now to a consideration of analogy in Wiener s texts and 

Crossing Boundaries: Everything Is an Analogy, 

Including This Statement 

In his autobiography I Am a Mathematician, Wiener tells of retreating to 
the family farm for a weekend after a row with a couple of influential Har- 
vard mathematicians. Coming home cold and wet, he fell ill and slipped 
into delirium. “All through the pneumonia,” he wrote, “my delirium as- 
sumed the form of a peculiar depression and worry [about the row and] . . . 
anxiety about the logical status of my mathematical work. It was impossible 
for me to distinguish among my pain and difficulty in breathing, the flap- 
ping of the window curtain, and certain as yet unresolved parts of the 
[mathematical] potential problem on which I was working.” Retrospec- 
tively musing on how his pain merged with external stimuli and mental ab- 
straction, he arrived at a key insight about his relation to mathematics. “I 
cannot say merely that the pain revealed itself as a mathematical tension, or 
that the mathematical tension symbolized itself as a pain: for the two were 
united too closely to make such a separation significant.” He realized “the 
possibility that almost any experience may act as a temporary symbol for a 
mathematical situation which has not yet been organized and cleared up.” 
Identifying an unsolved scientific problem with emotional conflict and 
physical pain, he became “more and more conscious” that for him, mathe- 
matics served to “reduce such a discord to semipermanent and recogniz- 
able terms.” Once he solved the conceptual problem, its link with a 
personal conflict seemed to resolve that as well, allowing him to “release it 
and pass on to something else .” 20 Mapping mathematics onto emotional 
conflicts is one way, then, that Wiener used analogy. No doubt on more 
complex grounds than Jacob Bronowski intended, he enthusiastically en- 
dorsed Bronowski s suggestion that all of mathematics is a metaphor. Math- 
ematics, Wiener wrote in The Human Use of Human Beings, “which most 

Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled / 93 

of us see as the most factual of all sciences, constitutes the most colossal 
metaphor imaginable, and must be judged, aesthetically as well as intellec- 
tually, in terms of the success of this metaphor” (HU, p. 95). 

His identification of personal conflicts with conceptual problems was so 
strong that he perceived it as “driving” him to mathematics, almost as if 
against his will. 21 The coercive imagery is significant. He was the son of a 
domineering father who consciously wanted to mold him into a prodigy. 
Once out from under his father s tutelage, he often found it difficult to mo- 
tivate himself. Steve Heims, in his biography of Wiener, observes that 
Wiener apparently used the identification between emotional states and 
mathematical problems as a spur to goad himself onward. 22 While working 
on a difficult problem, he would fall into a depression, which he would de- 
liberately exacerbate to make himself work harder. Relying on analogical 
equivalencies he set up between mathematics and emotion, he anticipated 
that solving the intellectual problem would allow him to regain psycholog- 
ical homeostasis. 

The flip side of drawing analogies is constructing boundaries . Analogy as 
a figure draws its force from the boundaries it leapfrogs across. Without 
boundaries, the links created by analogy would cease to have revolutionary 
impact. For Wiener, analogy and boundary work went hand in hand. In 
both his professional and his private life, he saw boundaries playing impor- 
tant roles. He included in his first autobiography, Ex-Prodigy: My Child- 
hood and Youth, an account of his mother’s anti-Semitism and his feeling of 
being unwanted and alienated from her when he discovered, as a teenager, 
that his fathers side of the family was Jewish. 23 Perhaps because of this 
formative experience, the construction of inside/outside markers charac- 
terized his response to many life situations. In his autobiographies, he fre- 
quently depicted himself as an outsider, standing apart from a privileged 
group whose boundaries did not include him. He made it a point to decline 
scientific prizes and to resign from prestigious professional groups in which 
he was offered membership if he did not agree with their goals. 

Boundaries also played important roles in his scientific work (as they do 
in electrical engineering generally). The problem that engaged him when 
he fell ill and felt the flapping curtain woven into the mathematics was a 
boundary problem, having to do with w'hat happens to an electrical field 
around a sharp physical discontinuity. In his later work on cybernetics, 
boundary formation and analogical linking collaborate to create a discur- 
sive field in which animals, humans, and machines can be treated as equiv- 
alent cybernetic systems. The central text displaying this interplay is the 
influential cybernetic manifesto that Wiener coauthored in 1943 with 

9<4 / Chapter Four 

Julian Bigelow and Arturo Rosenblueth, “Behavior, Purpose, and Teleol- 
ogy.” 24 Offering an agenda for the nascent field of cybernetics, this work 
also created a discursive style that produced the objects of its analysis. 

“Behavior, Purpose, and Teleology” begins by contrasting behaviorism 
with functionalism. Whereas functionalism (in the authors’ definition) 
foregrounds internal structure and is relatively unconcerned with the or- 
ganism s relation to the environment, behaviorism focuses on relations be- 
tween the organism and environment and is relatively unconcerned with 
internal structure. In the laboratory, the behaviorist approach leads to 
“black box” engineering, in which one assumes that the organism is a “black 
box” whose contents are unknown. Producing equivalent behavior, then, 
counts as producing an equivalent system. The obvious justification is that 
even when little or nothing is known about internal structure, meaningful 
conclusions can still be drawn about behavior. Bracketing internal struc- 
ture did more than this, however. It also produced the assertion that 
because humans and machines sometimes behave similarly, they are es- 
sentially alike. Note the slippage in this passage comparing living organ- 
isms and machines. “The methods of study for the two groups are at present 
similar. Whether they should always be the same may depend on whether 
or not there are one or more qualitatively distinct, unique characteristics 
present in one group and absent in the other. Such qualitative differences 
have not appeared so far” (p. 22). “Appeared” is an apt choice of verb, for 
the behaviorist viewpoint was constructed precisely to elide the very' real 
differences existing between the internal structure of organisms and that of 
machines. The analogy is produced by how the focus of attention is con- 
structed. The authors make a similar move when they perform successive 
cuts in the kinds of behavior they find interesting, focusing, for example, on 
purposeful rather than random behavior. This series of boundary forma- 
tions, they contend, “reveals that a uniform behavioristic analysis is applic- 
able to both machines and living organisms, regardless of the complexity of 
the behavior” (p. 22). What tends to drop from sight is the fact that the 
equation between organism and machine works because it is seen from a 
position formulated precisely so that it will work. 

Another rhetorical move is a reinscription of two important terms: pur- 
pose and teleology. Each is carefully defined to fit the cybernetic situation. 
Purpose implies action directed toward a goal (p. 18); teleology implies a 
goal achieved through negative feedback. In terms of the offered defini- 
tions, teleological behavior means simply “behavior controlled by negative 
feedback” (p. 24). But keeping a loaded term like teleology in play is not an 
innocent reinscription. It carries with it the sense of moving toward a goal 

Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled / 95 

meaningful to the system pursuing that goal, thus implying that meaning 
can exist for machines. It also suggests that the behaviorist project has a cos- 
mological dimension appropriate to the sweeping vistas of time and space 
that teleology is usually taken to imply. 

The authors reinforce these implications when they point out that tele- 
ology fell into scientific disrepute because it posits a “final cause” that exists 
in time after the effects it is supposed to bring about. Their version of tele- 
ology circumvents this problem; it does not rely on Aristotelian causality of 
any kind but only on purposeful action toward a goal. They suggest that the 
opposite of teleology is not deterministic causality but is nonteleology, that 
is, random behavior that is not goal-directed. They thus shift onto new 
ground the centuries-old debate between Newtonian causality and Christ- 
ian teleology. The important tension now is not between science and God 
but between purpose and randomness. Purpose achieved through negative 
feedback is the way that goal-seeking devices deal with a probabilistic uni- 
verse. By implication, the proper cosmological backdrop for the workings 
of teleological mechanisms is neither the cosmos infused by divine purpose 
as imagined by Christians nor the world of infinite predictability as 
dreamed by Laplace but a Gibbesian universe of probabilistic relations and 
entropic decay. Through these reinscriptions and analogical links, cyber- 
netics becomes philosophy by other means, 

A young philosopher, Richard Taylor, took up the gauntlet thrown down 
in the cybernetic manifesto. In a critique published seven years later in the 
same journal, Philosophy of Science , he sought to show that either “pur- 
pose” had been stretched so far that it could apply to any behavior or else it 
had been used to smuggle in inferences that referred to a machine s behav- 
ior but that had properly originated within a human observer . 25 He in- 
tended to demonstrate that the rhetoric of “black box” engineering had 
covertly opened the boxes and put into them qualities produced by the very 
analysis that treated them as unopened black boxes. 

In their rebuttal, Wiener and Rosenblueth make clear that they are ap- 
pealing to a discourse community of scientists, whom they deem superior 
to philosophers. They constitute this community by distinguishing be- 
tween verbal analysis, which they call “trivial and barren,” and their analy- 
sis, which is motivated by “scientific” concerns . 26 The implicit contrast 
between the verbal ambiguities that might interest a philosopher and the 
weighty concerns of “science” is underscored by the contrast they draw be- 
tween Taylor s “beliefs” and their repeated use of “science” and “scientific” 
to describe their project (eleven times in a short article). Taylor had used 
several examples to illustrate that “purpose,” as they defined it, could be ap- 

96 / Chapter Four 

plied to nonteleological mechanisms (a clock that breaks down at midnight 
on N ew Years Eve, a submarine that follows a boat to which it is attached by 
a cable). In riposte, Wiener and Rosenblueth contend that these examples 
are easily distinguished from true servomechanisms using negative feed- 
back. To make the point, however, they are necessarily led into a discussion 
of the internal structures of the mechanisms — exactly the position they did 
not want to take in their original article arguing for a behaviorist approach. 
Their rebuttal is effective, then, only to the extent that it complements a 
strict behaviorist approach with an analysis that, contra behaviorist princi- 
ples, uses differences in internal structures to sort behaviors into different 

This alternating focus on behavior and internal structure is similar to the 
rhetorical strategies that Geof Bowker analyzes in his article showing how 
cybernetics constituted itself as a universal science. 27 Bowker points out 
that cybernetics positioned itself both as a metascience and as a tool that 
any other science could use. It offered a transdisciplinary vocabulary that 
could be adapted for a variety of disciplinary purposes, presenting itself in 
this guise as content-free, and it simultaneously offered a content-rich 
practice in which cybernetic mechanisms were analyzed, modeled, and oc- 
casionally built. Operating on these two different levels, cybernetic dis- 
course was able to penetrate into other disciplines while also maintaining 
its turf as a disciplinary paradigm. In Wiener and Rosenblueth s rebuttal to 
Taylor, the alternation between a structure-free and a structure-rich cyber- 
netics produces a similar rhetorical effect. In its structure-free guise, cy- 
bernetics links men and machines by eliding internal structure; in its 
structure-rich form, it presents information flow and negative feedback as 
important structural elements. It is no accident that Warren McCulloch 
used a similar rhetorical strategy in his argument with Hans Teuber, as dis- 
cussed in chapter 3. Just as the alternation between content-free and 
content-rich cybernetics allows a deeper penetration into disciplinary sites 
than would otherwise be possible, so the alternation between behavior and 
structure allowed the discourse simultaneously to assimilate biological or- 
ganisms and machines into the same category and to distinguish them from 
plain-vanilla mechanical systems. 

In his rejoinder, Taylor missed the opportunity to point out that the focus 
of Wiener and Rosenblueth s analysis alternated between behavior and 
structure. 28 Instead he chose to pursue a line of questioning similar to that 
in his original article, as he again tried to show that if one relies only on ex- 
ternal observations of behavior, “purpose” cannot be reliably distinguished 
from chance or random events. In contesting for what counts as “purpose,” 

Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled / 97 

he wanted to deny to the hehaviorist approach a distinction crucial to gen- 
erating their system (the difference between purposeful and random be- 
havior). He sensed that behavior had been defined so as to allow intention 
and desire to be imputed to machines. But he let slip by the larger point that 
hehaviorist assumptions were used selectively to accomplish a political 
agenda implicit in the way that categories were constructed. For Wiener, 
this agenda included constituting one category that encompassed cyber- 
netic machines and humans, which were put together because they shared 
the ability to use probabilistic methods to control randomness, and another 
category for noncybemetic mechanical systems. These boundary markers 
implied larger assumptions about the nature of the universe (probabilistic 
rather than deterministic), about effective strategies for dealing with this 
universe (controlling randomness through negative feedback), and about a 
system hierarchy that had moral connotations as well as practical values 
(flexible systems using negative feedback were better than mechanical de- 
vices that did not use feedback). More than the definition of purpose, it was 
these larger inscriptions that made “Behavior, Purpose, and Teleology” the 
founding document for cybernetics. 

One of the most frequent criticisms made of cybernetics during this pe- 
riod was that it was not really a new science but was merely an extended 
analogy (men are like machines). Wiener heard the charge often enough 
that he finally felt it was time to take the cybernetic bull by the horns. In 
“The Nature of Analogy,” a manuscript fragment dated 1950, he offers a 
strong defense for analogy; moving the argument onto new and more com- 
pelling ground. 29 Its brevity notwithstanding, “The Nature of Analog)'” is a 
wide-ranging meditation on what analogy means in science, mathematics, 
language, and perception. It argues that those who object to Wieners ana- 
logical moves do so because they hold realist assumptions that do not stand 
up to rigorous scrutiny. Cybernetics as Wiener envisioned it is about rela- 
tion, not essence. The analogical relations it constructs are therefore not 
merely rhetorical figures but are systems that generate the only kind of sig- 
nificance available to us as perceiving, finite beings with no access to un- 
mediated reality. 

Wiener begins by pointing out that language is always analogical, in the 
sense that it puts forth propositions that listeners must interpret from their 
own experiences, which are never identical to the speaker’s. This observa- 
tion anticipates Michael Arbib and Mary Hesse s argument that significa- 
tion occurs through category constitution, not through the communication 
of an Aristotelian essence. !0 Like them, Wiener also denies that language 
communicates an Aristotelian essence. The convergence points to similar- 

9 8 / Chapter Four 

ities between his definition of information and Ferdinand de Saussure’s 
view of la langue, or language as a system. In both cases, communication 
proceeds through selection from a field of possible alternatives rather than 
through the direct articulation of inherent reference. Just as Saussurian lin- 
guistics is associated with deconstructive theories that reveal the indeter- 
minacy of reference and that expose the inability of language to ground 
itself, so Wiener’s cybernetics sees communication as a probabilistic act in 
a probabilistic universe, where initial conditions are never known exactly 
and where messages signify only through their relation to other messages 
that might have been sent. For Wiener no less than Saussure, signification 
is about relation, not about the world as a thing-in-itself. 31 

It is in this context that pattern, associated with information (as we saw 
in chapter 2), assumes paramount importance. Wiener’s view of sense per- 
ception makes the point clear. Perception does not reflect reality directly 
but rather relies on transformations that preserve a pattern across multiple 
sensory' modalities and neural interfaces. Representation emerges through 
the analogical relation of these transformations to the original stimulus. In 
this respect, sense perception is like mathematics and logic, for they too 
“deal preeminently with pattern apart from content.” 32 The behaviorist 
approach is well suited to this relational epistemology because it concen- 
trates on transmission of patterns rather than communication of essence. 
Consider the antiaircraft predictor that Wiener developed in collaboration 
with Julian Bigelow during World War II. 33 The prognosticator received 
tracking data as input (for example, radar following a plane) and gave, as 
output, predictions of where the plane would go. Statistical analysis was 
used to find patterns in these data, and the data themselves were under- 
stood as patterns analogically related to events in the world. Thus, percep- 
tion, mathematics, and information all concentrate on pattern rather than 
content. As data move across various kinds of interfaces, analogical rela- 
tionships are the links that allow pattern to be preserved from one modality 
to another. Analogy is thus constituted as a universal exchange system that 
allows data to move across boundaries. It is the lingua franca of a world 
( reconstructed through relation rather than grasped in essence. 

Border crossings accomplished through analogy include the separation 
between flesh and world (sense perception), the transition between one dis- 
cipline and another (for example, moving from the physiology' of living or- 
ganisms to the electrical engineering of a cybernetic machine), and the 
transfonnation of embodied experience, noisy with error, into the clean 
abstractions of mathematical pattern. Even the prostheses that Wiener de- 
signed can be understood as operating through analogy', for they trans- 

Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled / 99 

formed information from one modality into another . 34 The “hearing glove,” 
for example, was an apparatus that converted sounds (auditor)' signals) into 
touch (tactile signals) by stimulating a deaf person’s fingers with electro- 
magnetic vibrators that were analogical transformations of sound frequen- 
cies. For Wiener, analogy was communication, and communication was 
analog)'. Objecting that cybernetics is “merely an analogy” was for him akin 
to saying that cybernetics is “merely about how we know the world.” 

The problem with this approach lies not so much in the analogical rela- 
tions that Wiener constructed between living and mechanical systems as in 
his tendency to erase from view the very real differences in embodied ma- 
teriality, differences that the analogies did not express. Confronted with 
two situations, he was much more inclined to move easily and quickly to an 
abstract level, where similarities in patterns became evident, than to re- 
main attentive to the particularities that made each situation unique. 
No doubt his own lack of involvement in the nitty-gritty work of the lab 
was a contributing factor in this elision of embodied materiality. He noted 
the impatience he felt with the exacting procedures of the biological labo- 
ratory. “This impatience was largely the result of my mental quickness 
and physical slowness. I could see the end to be accomplished long be- 
fore I could labor through the manipulative stages that were to bring me 
there .” 35 The problem was serious enough to force him to give up his hope 
of earning a Ph.D. in biology. In his later professional collaborations with 
Rosenblueth and others, he left the lab work to them. Colleagues recall 
how he would wander into Rosenblueth’s laboratory when an experiment 
was under way, make a few notes and ask a few questions, and retreat to his 
office to work out the mathematical analogies expressing the physical situ- 
ation. When Wiener and his collaborators wrote such phrases as “We cut 
the attachment of the muscle,” the plural was purely honorary, as Masani 
points out in his excellent biography of Wiener . 36 Other colleagues sug- 
gested that his ineptitude in the lab made him less attentive to the particu- 
larities of actual neurophysiological structures. In a posthumous tribute to 
Wiener, Walter Rosenblith and Jerome Wiesner wrote, “In areas in which 
Wiener s intuition was less educated than in engineering, he was often im- 
patient with experimental details; for example, he seemed sometimes un- 
willing to learn that the brain did not behave the way he expected it to .” 3 7 
For Wiener, the emphasis on analogy went hand in hand with a certain es- 
trangement from the flesh. In this respect, the contrast between him and 
McCulloch is clear. As a dedicated experimentalist, McCulloch was sensi- 
tive in a way that Wiener was not to the tension between the plenitude of 
embodiment and the sparseness of abstraction. 

too / Chapter Four 

As we have seen, Wiener wanted to inscribe cybernetics into a larger 
drama that would reinforce the liberal humanist subject. Given his inclina- 
tion toward a Gibbesian universe, that drama focused on probability. In 
addition to operating on the microscale of subatomic particles and the 
macroscale of cybernetic circuits, probability also operates on the cosmo- 
logical level of universal dissipation and decay. Linking probability with in- 
formation allowed Wiener to script the cybernetic subject into a 
cosmological drama of chaos and order. It is here, on this cosmological 
level, that he staged the moral distinctions between good cybernetic sys- 
tems, which reinforce the autonomous liberal subject, and evil machines, 
which undermine or destroy the autonomy of the subject. An important 
player in this titanic struggle between good and evil machines is entropy, a 
protean concept with a richly complex history'. 

Entropy as Cultural Relay: From Heat Engines to Information 

We can begin our investigation into entropy with the series of transforma- 
tions that M ark Seltzer traces in Bodies and Machines. Seltzer, concentrating 
on the social formations of late-nineteenth-eentury naturalism, finds at the 
heart of naturalism a double and seemingly contradictory thrust: on the one 
hand, “the insistence on the materiality or physicality of persons, represen- 
tations, and actions”; on the other hand, “the insistent abstract ion ofpersons, 
bodies, and motions to models, numbers, maps, charts, and diagrammatic 
representations , ” Calling the ideology’ that resulted from this double thrust a 
“dematerialized materialism,” Seltzer instances such phenomena as the 
emergence of statistical representations for human behavior and the re- 
newed interest in the ergonomics of the human body . 38 One focuses on be- 
havior abstracted into statistical ensembles of data, the other on the material 
processes of energy consumption and dissipation. They’ illustrate the con- 
struction of bodies both as material objects and as probability distributions. 

The duality'that Seltzer locates in nineteenth-century culture continued 
into the twentieth century with renewed force when statistical thermody- 
namics merged with information theory. One of the principal sites for this 
merger was cybernetics. The emphasis on pattern constructed bodies as 
immaterial flows of information; the alternating emphasis on structure rec- 
ognized that these “black boxes” were heavy with materiality. Complex 
couplings between the two registers worked to set up a series of exchanges 
between biological organisms and machines. To see how these couplings 
evolved, let us start with the exchanges that thermodynamics set up and fol- 
low them forward into cybernetics. 

Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled / i o i 

The first law of thermodynamics, stating that energy is neither created 
nor destroyed, points to a world in which no energy is lost. The second law, 
stating that entropy always tends to increase in a closed system, forecasts a 
universe that is constantly winding down. This tension between the first 
and second laws, between stability and degradation, runs like a leitmotiv 
through turn-of-the-century cultural formations. According to Seltzer, the 
tension itself acts like a thermodynamic exchanger, allowing incompatible 
terms such as production and reproduction, machines and bodies, to be ar- 
ticulated together. The body is like a heat engine because it cycles energy 
into different forms and degrades it in the process; the body is not like a 
heat engine because it can use energy to repair itself and to reproduce. In 
one sense the comparison constructs the difference between body and ma- 
chine; in another sense it acts as an exchanger that allows bodies and heat 
engines to be linked together. Through such comparisons, Seltzer argues, 
“what is gradually elaborated is a more or less efficient, more or less effec- 
tive system of transformations and relays between ‘opposed’ and contra- 
dictory registers.” These ambiguous linkages were reinforced because 
thermodynamics itself was perceived as operating in the two different reg- 
isters of conservation and dissipation. Thus, he concludes that thermody- 
namics, wrapping both conservative stability and dissipative decay within 
the mantle of scientific authority, “provided a working model of a new me- 
chanics and biomechanics of power.” 39 

Already functioning as an exchange system within the culture, ther- 
modynamics evolved into “dematerialized materialism” when Ludwig 
Boltzmann gave entropy a much more general formulation by defining it as 
a probability function. In this “dematerialized” construction, entropy was 
interpreted as a measure of randomness. The second law was then refor- 
mulated to state that closed systems tend to move from order to random- 
ness. Encompassing the earlier definition of entropy, Boltzmanns 
formulation also added something new, for it allowed entropy to be linked 
with systems that had nothing to do w ith heat engines. 

This dematerialization was carried further when entropy was connected 
with information. As early as 1929, the connection was made through Leo 
Szilard’s interpretation of Maxwells Demon, 40 a mythical being in a 
thought experiment proposed by James Clerk Maxwell in 1871. The De- 
mon gained energy by sorting molecules. Szilard and Leon Brillouin, 
among others, pointed out that to sort molecules, the Demon has to have 
information about them. 41 The container in which the Demon sits is 
imagined as a “black body” (a technical term meaning that the radiation is 
uniformly dispersed) so that there is no way for the Demon to “see” the 

102 / Chapter Four 

molecules. Brillouin calculated that the energy the Demon would have to 
expend to get information about the molecules is greater than what tire 
Demon could gain by the sorting process. The immediate result was to res- 
cue the second law, which in any case was too well-established to be seri- 
ously in doubt. The more important implication was to suggest that entropy 
and information are inversely related to each other. The more information 
there is, the less entropy; the more entropy is present, the less information. 
Brillouin therefore proposed that information be considered as negative 
entropy, or negentropy. Maxwell’s Demon was one of the relay points 
through which a relationship was established between entropy and infor- 

Like Brillouin and many others of his generation, Wiener accepted the 
idea that entropy was the opposite of information. The inverse relation 
made sense to him because he thought of information as allied with struc- 
ture and viewed entropy as associated with randomness, dissipation, and 
death. “As entropy increases,” he wrote, “the universe, and all closed sys- 
tems in the universe, tend naturally to deteriorate and lose their distinc- 
tiveness, to move from the least to the most probable state, from a state of 
organization and differentiation in which distinctions and forms exist, to a 
state of chaos and sameness. In Gibbs’ universe order is least probable, 
chaos most probable.” In this view, life is an island of negentropy amid a sea 
of disorder. “There are local enclaves whose direction seems opposed to 
that of the universe at large and in which there is a limited and temporary 
tendency for organization to increase. Life finds its home in some of these 
enclaves” (HU, p. 12). In a related metaphor, he envisioned a living organ- 
ism as an informational system swimming upstream against the entropic 

This view of entropy makes sense when viewed in the context of 
nineteenth-century thermodynamics. But it is not a necessary implication 
of information as information is technically defined. Claude Shannon took 
the opposite view and identified information and entropy rather than op- 
posed them. 42 Since the choice of sign was conventional, this formulation 
was also a possibility. Heuristically, Shannon’s choice was explained by say- 
ing that the more unexpected (or random) a message is, the more informa- 
tion it conveys. 43 This change in sign did not affect the dematerialization 
that entropy had undergone, but it did reverse entropy’s value in more than 
a mathematical sense. In retrospect, identifying entropy with information 
can be seen as a crucial crossing point, for this allowed entropy to be recon- 
ceptualized as the thermodynamic motor driving systems to self-organiza- 
tion rather than as the heat engine driving the world to universal heat death. 

Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled / 103 

Space will not permit me to tell the story of this reversal here, and in any 
event, it has been chronicled elsewhere . 44 Soffiee it to say that as a result, 
chaos went from being associated with dissipation in the Victorian sense of 
dissolute living and reckless waste to being associated with dissipation in a 
newly positive sense of increasing complexity and new life. 

Wiener came close to making this crossing. In one of his astonishing ana- 
logical leaps, he saw a connection between the “light” that the Demon 
needs to sort the molecules and the lights that plants use in photosynthesis. 
He argued that in photosynthesis, plants act as if their leaves were studded 
with Maxwell’s Demons, all sorting molecules to allow the plant to run up- 
hill toward increasing complexity rather than downhill toward death . 45 But 
he did not go beyond this isolated insight to the larger realization that large 
entropy production could drive systems to increasing complexity. Finally, 
he remains on the negative side of this divide, seeing life and homeostasis as 
contrarian islands that, although they may hold out for a while, must even- 
tually be swamped by the entropic tide. 

So firmly rooted is Wiener in this perspective that he comes close on sev- 
eral occasions to saying that entropic decay is evil. Entropy becomes 
morally negative for Wiener when he sees it operating against the differen- 
tial probability distributions on which the transfer of information depends. 
Recall that Gregory Bateson defined information as a difference that 
makes a difference; if there is no difference, there is no information. Since 
entropy tends always to increase, it will eventually result in a universe in 
which all distributions are in their most probable state and in which univer- 
sal homogeneity prevails. Imagine Dr. Zhivago sitting at his desk in a cold, 
cold room, trying to telegraph a message to his beloved Laura, while in the 
background Lauras theme plays and entropy keeps relentlessly increasing. 
Icicles hanging from his fingers and the telegraph key; he tries to tap out “I 
love you,” but he is having trouble. He not only is freezing from heat death 
but also is stymied by information death. No matter what he taps, the mes- 
sage always comes out the same; “eeeeeee” (or whatever letter is most com- 
mon in the Russian alphabet). This whimsical scenario illustrates why 
Wiener associated entropy with oppression, rigidity, and death. Communi- 
cation can be seen, he suggested, as a game that two humans (or machines) 
play against noise . 46 To be rigid is inevitably to lose the game, for rigidity 
consigns the players to the mechanical repetition of messages that can only 
erode over time as noise intervenes. Only if creative play is allowed, if the 
mechanism can adapt freely to changing messages, can homeostasis be 
maintained, even temporarily, in the face of constant entropic pressure to- 
ward degradation. 

io< / Chapter Four 

In the “dematerialized materialism” of the battlefield where life strug- 
gles against entropy and noise, the body ceases to be regarded primarily as a 
material object and instead is seen as an informational pattern. The struggle, 
then, is between strategists who try to preserve this pattern intact and noisy 
opponents (or, rather, noise as an opponent) who try to disrupt it. During the 
1940s and 1950s, Wiener was one of the important voices casting the cos- 
mological drama between cybernetic mechanisms and noise in these terms. 
In The Human Use of Human Beings, he suggests that human beings are not 
so much bone and blood, nerve and synapse, as they are patterns of organi- 
zation. He points out that over the course of a lifetime, the cells composing a 
human being change many times over. Identity cannot therefore consist in 
physical continuity. “Our tissues change as we live: the food we eat and the 
air we breathe become flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, and the mo- 
mentary elements of our flesh and bone pass out of our body every day with 
our excreta. We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are 
not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves” (HU, p. 96). 
Consequently, to understand humans, one needs to understand how the 
patterns of information they embody are created, organized, stored, and re- 
trieved. Once these mechanisms are understood, they can be used to create 
cybernetic machines. If memory in humans is the transfer of informational 
patterns from the environment to the brain, machines can be built to effect 
the same kind of transfer. Even emotions may be achievable for machines if 
feelings are considered not as “merely a useless epiphenomenon of nervous 
actions” (HU, p. 72) but as control mechanisms governing learning. 47 Con- 
sidered as informational patterns, cybernetic machines and men can make 
common cause against the disruptive forces of noise and entropy. 

The picture that emerges from these conjectures shows the cybernetic 
organism — human or mechanical — responding flexibly to changing situa- 
tions, learning from the past, freely adapting its behavior to meet new cir- 
cumstances, and succeeding in preserving homeostatic stability 7 in the 
midst of even radically altered environments. Nimbleness is an essential 
weapon in this struggle, for to repeat mindlessly and mechanically is in- 
evitably to let noise win. Noise has the best chance against rote repetition, 
where it goes to work at once to introduce randomness. But a system that 
already behaves unpredictably cannot be so easily subverted. If a Gibbe- 
sian universe implies eventual information death, it also implies a universe 
in which the best shot for success lies in flexible and probabilistic behavior. 
The Greek root for cybernetics, “steersman,” aptly 7 describes the cyber- 
netic man-machine: light on its feet, sensitive to change, a being that both 
is a flow and knows how to go with the flow. 

Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled / 105 

Reinforcing the boundary work that assimilates the liberal humanist 
subject and the cybernetic machine into the same privileged space are the 
distinctions Wiener makes between good and bad machines. When ma- 
chines are evil in The Human Use of Human Beings, it is usually because 
they have become rigid and inflexible. Whereas the cybernetic machine 
is ranged alongside man as his brother and peer, metaphors that cluster 
around the rigid machine depict it through tropes of domination and en- 
gulfment. The ultimate horror is for the rigid machine to absorb the human 
being, co-opting the flexibility' that is the human birthright. “When human 
atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full 
right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods, it mat- 
ters little that their raw material is flesh and blood. What is used as an ele- 
ment in a machine, is in fact an element in the machine” (HU, p. 185). Here 
the analogical mappingbetween humans and machines turns sinister, trap- 
ping humans within inflexible walls that rob them of their autonomy. The 
passage shows how important it is to Wiener to construct the boundaries of 
the cybernetic machine so that it reinforces rather than threatens the au- 
tonomous self. When the boundaries turn rigid or engulf humans so that 
they lose their agency, the machine ceases to be cybernetic and becomes 
simply and oppressively mechanical. 

The cosmological stage upon which the struggle between oppressive 
machines and cybernetic systems unfolds is — no surprise — the Gibbesian 
universe in which probability reigns supreme. “The great weakness of the 
machine — the weakness that saves us so far from being dominated by it — 
is that it cannot yet take into account the vast range of probability that char- 
acterizes the human situation.” Here the probability differentials that 
make communication possible are assimilated to humans and good ma- 
chines, leaving bad machines to flounder around in probabilities too di- 
verse for them to assess. The rules of the contest are laid down by the 
second law of thermodynamics, which allows a margin in which cybernetic 
men-machines can operate because it is still cranking up its death engine. 
“The dominance of the machine presupposes a society in the last stages of 
increasing entropy, where probability is negligible and where the statistical 
differences among individuals are nil. Fortunately we have not yet reached 
such a state” (HU, p. 181). When in the end the universe ceases to manifest 
diverse probabilities and becomes a uniform soup, control, communica- 
tion, cybernetics — not to mention life — will expire. In the meantime, men 
and cybernetic machines stand shoulder to shoulder in building dikes that 
temporarily stave off the entropie tide. 

The boundary work that links cybernetic machines and humans perhaps 

io6 / Chapter Four 

reaches its most complex articulation in the distinction that Wiener makes 
between Augustinian and Manichean opponents. At issue in this distinc- 
tion is the difference between an opponent who plays “honorably,” that 
is, abiding by rules that do not change, and one who tries to win by manipu- 
lation. F or Wiener, the exemplar of an Augustinian opponent is nature. Na- 
ture — including noise — may sometimes frustrate the scientists attempt to 
control it, but it does not consciously try to manipulate its opponent. The 
exemplar of the Manichean opponent is the chess player, including chess- 
playing machines. Unlike nature, the chess player acts deviously and, if 
possible, manipulatively. When the chess player is contrasted with the sci- 
entist, it is almost always to the chess players detriment. In pointing out 
that nature does not try to outwit the scientist, Wiener observes that having 
an Augustinian opponent means that the scientist has time to reflect on and 
correct his or her strategy, because no one is trying to take advantage of the 
scientist’s mistakes. Scientists are thus governed by their best moments, 
whereas chess players are governed by their worst (HU, p. 36). 

Peter Galison, in “The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the 
Cybernetic Vision,” argues that cybernetics (along with game theory and 
operations research) should be called a “Manichean science.” 48 In a fine- 
grained analysis of Wieners collaboration with Julian Bigelow to develop 
an antiaircraft (AA) weapon during World War II, Galison brilliantly shows 
that Wieners construction of “the enemy” was significantly different from 
that portrayed in war propaganda or even in other technical reports . Rather 
than seeing the enemy in conventionally human (or, in the case of propa- 
ganda, subhuman) terms, Wiener modeled the enemy — for example, a 
fighter pilot trying to evade AA fire — as a probabilistic system that could ef- 
fectively be countered using cybernetic modeling. Unlike other fire sys- 
tems, which had fixed rules derived from probabilistic modeling, Wiener’s 
imagined firing machine could evolve new rules based on prior observa- 
tion — that is, it could learn. Thus the firing system would evolve to become 
as Manichean as the enemy it faced. Galison argues that this strategy en- 
abled a series of substitutions and identifications that mapped the enemy 
pilot onto the servo-controller and ultimately onto the allied war personnel 
behind the servo-controller. In a “Summary Report for Demonstration,” 
Wiener and Bigelow wrote: “We realized that the ‘randomness’ or irregu- 
larity of an airplane ’s path is introduced by the pilot; that in attempting to 
force his dynamic craft to execute a useful manoeuvere . . . the pilot be- 
haves like a servo-mechanism ” (quoted in Galison, p. 236) . Thus cybernet- 
ics, itself constituted through analogies, creates further analogies through 

Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled / toy 

theories and artifacts that splice man to machine, German to American. 
Through this relay system, the enemy becomes like us and we become like 
the enemy: enemy mine. If these analogical mappings kept the enemy pilot 
from being demonized, they also made the cybernetic machine (and, by ex- 
tension, cybernetics itself) party to a bloody struggle in which Manichean 
tactics were used by both sides to kill as many humans as possible. 

Parti}' in reaction to this co-optation of cybernetics by the military, 
Wiener half a decade after the war wrote the significantly entitled The Hu- 
man Use of Hu man Beings . 49 Although Wiener had done everything in his 
power during the war to further cybernetics as a “Manichean science,” his 
writings after the war show a deep aversion to the manipulation that a 
Manichean strategy implies. From his autobiographies, it is clear that he 
was hypersensitive to being manipulated, perhaps with good reason. When 
he was first beginning to establish himself as a mathematician, his father 
tried to get him to use his contacts to advance his father’s philological 
ideas — an instance of manipulation that made Wiener increasingly wary of 
how others might try' to use his talents and influence to further their own 
ends. It is no accident that he associated the manipulative chess-playing 
machine with the military' projects that he resolutely turned away from af- 
ter atomic bombs vaporized hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. 
Remarking on Claude Shannons suggestion that chess-playing machines 
have military’ potential, he wrote, “When Mr. Shannon speaks of the devel- 
opment of military tactics, he is not talking moonshine, but is discussing a 
most imminent and dangerous contingency” (HU, p. 178). The problem, of 
course, was that cybernetics adapted all too readily to Manichean tactics, 
making it possible to play these deadly games even more effectively. 

Wieners war work, combined with his antimilitary stance after the war, 
illustrates with startling clarity’ how cybernetics functioned as a source of 
both intense pride and intense anxiety' for him. This tension, often ex- 
pressed as an anxious desire to limit the scope of cybernetics, takes a differ- 
ent but related form when he considers the question of body boundaries, 
always a highly charged issue. When the physical boundaries of the human 
form are secure, he celebrates the flow of information through the organ- 
ism. All this changes, however, when the boundaries cease to define an au- 
tonomous self, either through manipulation or engulfment. In the next 
section, we will see flow this anxiety erupts into his 1948 book Cybernetics 
at critical points, causing him to withdraw from the more subversive impli- 
cations of the discipline he fathered. It is no accident that erotic metaphors 
are used to carry the thrust of the argument. Like cybernetics, eroticism is 

i o 8 / Chapter Four 

intensely concerned with the problematics of body boundaries. It is not for 
nothing that sexual orgasm is called “the little death” or that writers from 
Marquis de Sade to J. G. Ballard have obsessively associated eroticism with 
penetrating and opening the body. At stake in the erotically charged dis- 
course in which Wiener considers the pleasures and dangers of coupling 
between parts that are not supposed to touch is how extensively the body of 
the subject maybe penetrated or even dissolved by cybernetics as a body of 
knowledge. It is here, as much as anywhere else, that Wieners concern to 
preserve the liberal subject comes into uneasy tension with his equally 
strong desire to advance the cause of cybernetics. As we shall see, resolu- 
tion can be achieved only by withdrawal, pointing toward a future in which 
the cybernetic subject could not finally be contained within the assump- 
tions of liberal humanism. 

The Argument for Celibacy: Preserving 
the Boundaries of the Subject 

In Cybernetics, the technical text from which The Human Use of Hu man 
Beings was adapted, Wiener looks into the mirror of the cyborg but then 
withdraws . 50 The scenarios he constructs to enact and justify this with- 
drawal suggestively point to the role that erotic anxiety plays in cybernetic 
narratives. In my analysis, I will focus on the chapter entitled “Information, 
Language, and Society.” Here Wiener entertains the possibility that cyber- 
netics has provided a way of thinking so fertile that it will allow the social 
and natural sciences to be synthesized into one great field of inquiry. Yet he 
finally demurs from this palpable object of desire. Given that he is as impe- 
rialistic as most other scientists who think they have invented a new para- 
digm, why does he prefer to maintain the intellectual celibacy of his 
discovery? I will argue that central to his decision is a fantasy scene that ex- 
presses and controls anxiety by reconstituting boundaries. This fantasy 
gives rise to a series of erotically encoded metaphors that appear whenever 
anxiety becomes acute. The metaphors also have literal meanings that re- 
veal how intermingled the physical remains with the conceptual, the erotic 
with the cybernetic. As gestures of separation disconcertingly transform 
into couplings, the cybernetics of the subject and the subject of cybernetics 

Wiener works up to the fantasy by pointing out that there are many or- 
ganizations whose parts are themselves small organizations. Hobbes’s 
Leviathan is a Man-State made up of men; a Portuguese man-of-war is 
composed of polyps that mirror it in miniature; a man is an organism made 

Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled. / 109 

up of cells that in some respects also function like organisms. This line of 
thought leads Wiener to ask how these “bodies politic” function. “Obvi- 
ously, the secret is in the intercommunication of its members.” The How of 
information is thus introduced as a principle explaining how organization 
occurs across multiple hierarchical levels. To illustrate, he instances the 
“sexually attractive substances” that various species secrete to ensure that 
the sexes will be brought together (HU, p. 156). For example, the phero- 
mones that guide insect reproduction are general and omnidirectional, act- 
ing in this respect like hormones secreted within the body. The analogy' 
suggests that external hormones organize internal hormones, so that a hu- 
man organism becomes, in effect, a sort of permeable membrane through 
which hormonal information flow's. At this point we encounter his first de- 
murral. “I do not care to pronounce an opinion on this matter,” he an- 
nounces rather pretentiously after introducing it, preferring to “leave it as 
an interesting idea” (HU, p. 157). 

I think that the idea is left because it is disturbing as well as speculative. 
It implies that personal identity and autonomous will are merely illusions 
that mask the cybernetic reality. If our body surfaces are membranes 
through which information flows, who are we? Are we the cells that re- 
spond to the stimuli? Are we the larger collectives w'hose actions are the re- 
sultant of the individual members? Or are we the host organisms w'ho, as 
Richard Dawkins later claimed using cybernetic arguments, engage in sex 
because we are controlled by selfish genes within? 51 The choice of ex- 
amples foregrounds sexuality', but this is a kind of sex without sexuality. Im- 
plying the deconstruction of the autonomous self as a locus of erotic 
pleasure, it circumvents the assenting, demurring, intensifying, delaying, 
and consummating that constitute sexual play. When Wiener is confronted 
with this sexless sex, his first impulse is to withdraw': coitus interruptus. 

His second impulse is to reconstruct himself as a liberal subject through 
a disguised erotic fantasy that allows him to control the flow of information 
rather than be controlled by it. Similar fantasies appear everywhere in 
American literature, from Natty' Bumppo and Chingachgook to Ishmael 
and Queequeg. They are ubiquitous because they are about the American 
values of masculine autonomy and control, about deferred intimacy be- 
tween men in a society that is homophobic, racist, and misogynist. What is 
this fantasy? What else but for the American male to imagine himself alone 
in the woods with an “intelligent savage,” giving himself over to the pursuits 
that men follow' when they are alone together (HU, p. 157)? 

The fantasy’s ostensible purpose is to show' that Wiener and his savage 
companion could achieve intimacy even if they did not touch and shared no 

i/o / Chapter Four 

language. Wiener imagines himself “alert to those moments when [the sav- 
age] shows the signs of emotion or interest,” noticing at these moments 
what he watches. After a time, the savage would learn to reciprocate by 
“picking] out the moments of my special, active attention,” thus creating 
between them “a language as varied in possibilities as the range of impres- 
sions that the two of us are able to encompass” (HU, p. 157). Alone together 
in the woods, the two men construct a world of objects through the inter- 
play of their gazes. In the process they also reconstitute themselves as 
autonomous subjects who achieve intimacy through their voyeuristic par- 
ticipation in each others emotion and “special, active attention.” There re- 
mains, of course, a necessary difference between them. Wiener can move 
from this fantasy to the rest of his argument, whereas the “intelligent sav- 
age” reappears in his discourse only when Wiener finds it convenient to in- 
voke the savage. The passage reveals in miniature how the use of the plural 
by the liberal humanist subject can appropriate the voices of subaltern oth- 
ers, who if they could speak for themselves might say something very dif- 

Having reassured himself of intimacy, autonomy, and control, Wiener 
returns to the problem of the “body politic,” concentrating on its alarming 
lack of homeostasis. In contrast to the regulated, orderly exchanges be- 
tween him and his savage friend, the body politic is dominated by ex- 
changes between knaves and fools, with “betrayal, turncoatism, and 
deception” the order of the day (HU, p. 59). The economy of this society is 
clear-cut: the fools desire; the knaves manipulate their desires. The econ- 
omy is reinforced by statisticians, sociologists, and economists who prosti- 
tute themselves by figuring out for the knaves exactly how the calculus of 
desire can be maximized. The only respite from this relentless manipula- 
tion is found in small, autonomous populations. There homeostasis can still 
work, whether in “highly literate communities ... or villages of primitive 
savages” (HU, p. 160). The reappearance of the savage here is significant, 
for anxiety' about the manipulation of desire is reaching its height. N o doubt 
this reappearance has a soothing effect on Wiener's imagination, for it re- 
minds him that he need not be manipulated after all. 

We come now to the crux of the argument. The danger of cybernetics, 
from Wiener s point of view, is that it can potentially annihilate the liberal 
subject as the locus of control. On the microscale, the individual is merely 
the container for still smaller units within, units that dictate actions and de- 
sires; on the macroscale, these desires make the individual into a fool to be 
manipulated by knaves. Under a cybernetic paradigm, these two scales of 
organization would be joined to each other. What chance then for intimate 

Liberal Subject i v i r y Imperiled / in 

communication alone with an intelligent savage in the woods? No, despite 
the “hopes which some . . . friends have built for the social efficacy of what- 
ever new ways of thinking this book may contain,” Wiener finds himself 
unable to attribute “too much value to this type of wishful thinking” 
(HU, p. 162). Ironically, expanded too far across the bodies of disciplines, 
the science of control might rob its progenitor of the very control that was 
no doubt for him one of its most attractive features. 

Having reached this conclusion, Wiener reenacts the anxiety that gave 
rise to it. Through a series of interactive metaphors that connect his fantasy 
with his anxiety, he claims that it is a “misunderstanding of the nature of all 
scientific achievement” to suppose that “the physical and social sciences 
can be joined” (HU, p. 162). They must be kept apart, for they permit dif- 
ferent degrees of coupling between the scientist and the object of his inter- 
est. The precise sciences “achieve a sufficiently loose coupling with the 
phenomena we are studying [to allow us] to give a massive total account of 
this coupling.” Erotic interest is not altogether lacking, for “the coupling 
may not be loose enough for us to be able to ignore it altogether” (HU, 
p. 163). Nevertheless, the restrained science that Wiener practices is dif- 
ferent from the social sciences, where the coupling is much tighter and 
more intense. The contrast shows how central the concept of the autono- 
mous self is to cybernetics as Wiener envisioned it. 

The savage makes one last appearance in Wiener’s anxious considera- 
tion of how tightly the scientist can be coupled with his object without los- 
ing his objectivity. To illustrate the dangers of tight coupling, Wiener 
observes that primitive societies are veiy often changed by the anthropolo- 
gists who observe them. He makes the point specifically in terms of lan- 
guage: “Many a missionary has fixed his own misunderstandings of a 
primitive language as law eternal in the process of reducing it to writing” 
(HU, p. 63). In implicit contrast to this violation is the pristine intimacy 
Wiener achieved with his savage, where no misunderstandings disrupted 
the perfect sympathy of their gazes. 

Concluding that “we are too much in tune with the objects of our inves- 
tigations to be good probes,” Wiener counsels that cybernetics had best be 
left to the physical sciences, for to carry it into the human sciences would 
only build “exaggerated expectations” (HU, p. 164) . Behind this conclusion 
is the prospect of an interpenetration so complete that it would link the lit- 
tle units within to the larger social units without, thereby reducing the indi- 
vidual to a connective membrane with no control over desires and with no 
ability' to derive pleasure from them. N ot only sex but the sex organs them- 
selves disappear in this construction. Thus, Wiener decides that however 

i 12 / Chapter Four 

tempting the prospect of penetrating the boundaries of other disciplines 
might be, cybernetics is better off remaining celibate. 

The conjunction of erotic anxiety' and intellectual speculation in 
Wieners text implies that cybernetics cannot be adequately understood 
simply as a theoretic and technological extension of information theory. 
The analogies so important to his thought are constituted not only through 
similarities between abstract forms (such as probability ratios and statisti- 
cal analysis) but also through the complex lifeworld of embedded physical- 
ity that natural language expresses and evokes through its metaphoric 
resonances. Natural language is not extraneous to understanding the full 
complexities of Wieners thinking, as his mathematical biographer Pesi 
Masani implies when Masani contrasts the disembodied abstractions of 
mathematics with the “long-winded verbosity [of natural language], the 
hallmark of bureaucratic chicanery' and fake labor.” 52 On the contrary, the 
embodied metaphors of language are crucial to understanding the ways in 
which Wiener’s construction of the cybernetic body and the body of cyber- 
netics both privilege and imperil the autonomous humanistic subject. 

Viewed in historical perspective, Wiener was not successful in contain- 
ing cybernetics within the circle of liberal humanist assumptions. Only for 
a relatively' brief period in the late 1940s and 1950s could the dynamic ten- 
sion between cybernetics and the liberal subject be maintained — uneasy 
and anxious as that accommodation often was for Wiener. By the 1960s, the 
link between liberal humanism and self-regulation, a link forged in the 
eighteenth century, was already stretched thin; by the 1980s, it was largely 
broken. It is to Wiener s credit that he tried to craft a version of cybernetics 
that would enhance rather than subvert human freedom. But no person, 
even the father of a discipline, can single-handedly control what cybernet- 
ics signifies when it propagates through the culture by all manner of 
promiscuous couplings. Even as cybernetics lost the momentum of its 
drive to he a universal science, its enabling premises were mutating and re- 
producing at other sites. The voices that speak the cyborg do not speak as 
one, and the stories they tell are very different from the narratives that 
Wiener struggled to authorize. 

Chapter Five 


In Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo, the 1952 novel that has become an under- 
ground classic, anxiety about boundaries becomes acute. Like Norbert 
Wiener, by whom he was deeply influenced, Wolfe recognized the revolu- 
tionary potential of cybernetics to reconfigure bodies. Also like Wiener, he 
tried unsuccessfully to contain that potential, fearing that if it went too far it 
could threaten the autonomy of the (male) liberal subject. Abrasive, outra- 
geous, transgressive, frustratingly misogynistic, and occasionally brilliant, 
Limbo rarely leaves its readers feeling neutral. David Samuelson ranks it 
with Brave New World and 1984 as one of the three great dystopian novels 
of the century. 1 At the other end of the spectrum are readers (including 
some of my students) who see it as remarkable mostly for its egregious sex- 
ism and tendentious argument. Whatever one’s view of Limbo's literary- 
value, it is clear that the text is powerfully marked by the turn to a 
post-World War II cybernetic economy of information and simulacra. 

Limbo arrived at a pivotal moment in U.S. history, at a time when 
changes in speed and communication were forcing technologies of control 
into a reorganization that would result in the computer revolution and 
when the cold war loomed large in the national consciousness. It was in this 
climate that cybernetics was beginning to change what counted as ‘‘hu- 
man.” As we saw in preceding chapters, cybernetics constructed humans as 
information-processing systems whose boundaries are determined by the 
flow 7 of information. Cybernetics problematized body boundaries at the 
same time that the culture was generally anxious about communist pene- 
trations into the body politic. The time was right for a text that would over- 
lay the cybernetic reconfiguration of the human body onto the U.S. 
geopolitical body and (given Wolfe’s misogynistic views) onto tbe contested 
terrain of the gendered body. Limbo creates that imaginary 7 geography and 


1 1 4 / Chapter Five 

imbues it with the hypnagogic force of a nightmare. As a novel of ideas, it 
displays some of the passageways through which cybernetic notions began 
to circulate throughout U.S. culture and connect up with contemporary 
political anxieties. As a novel of ideas, it is an important literary document 
because it stages encounters between literary form and bodies represented 
within the text. The textual corpus, no less than the represented world, 
bears the imprint of the cybernetic paradigm upon its body. 

War, acknowledged and covert, is the repressed trauma that threatens to 
erupt throughout Limbo. But this is war transfigured, so compounded with 
neocortical forays and cybernetic refashionings that the terrains on which 
it is fought include synapses and circuits as well as checkpoints and borders . 
Although the novel is set in 1990, Wolfe asserts in an afterword: “Anybody 
who ‘paints a picture’ of some coming year is kidding — he’s only fancying 
up something in the present or past, not blueprinting the future. All such 
writing is essentially satiric (today-centered), not utopie (tomorrow- 
centered).” 2 His insistence on the novel’s satiric intent is a useful reminder 
that Limbo refracts its cybernetics concerns through the hysterical denun- 
ciations and national delirium precipitated by the cold war. In Pure War, 
Paul Virilio argues that postmodern technologies, especially global infor- 
mation networks and supersonic transport, have changed how military or- 
ganizations conceptualize the enemy. 3 Whereas a country’s borders were 
previously presumed adequate to distinguish between citizen and alien, in 
the post- World War II period the distinction between inside and outside 
ceased to signify in the same way. The military no longer thought of its task 
as protecting the body politic against an exterior enemy. Rather military re- 
sources were deployed against a country’s own population, as in Latin 
American death squads. Such military operations are not aberrations, Vir- 
ilio contends, but harbingers of a deep shift from exo-colonization to endo- 
colonization throughout postmodern cultures. Although Virilio s thesis is 
overstated, it nevertheless provides useful insight into the McCarthy era in 
the United States. During McCarthyism, paranoia about the inability to 
distinguish between citizen and alien, “loyal American” and communist 
spy, was at its height. In a scenario that, following Virilio, I call endo-colo- 
nization, Limbo joins political and geographical remappings with the cy- 
bernetic implosion into the body’s interior. 

As Donna Haraway has pointed out, cyborgs are simultaneously entities 
and metaphors, living beings and narrative constructions. 4 The conjunc- 
tion oftechnology and discourse is crucial. 5 Were the cyborg only a product 
of discourse, it could perhaps be relegated to science fiction, of interest to 
SF aficionados but not of vital concern to the culture. Were it only a tech- 

From Hyphen to Splice / its 

nologieal practice, it could be confined to such technical fields as bionics, 
medical prostheses, and virtual reality. Manifesting itself as both techno- 
logical object and discursive formation, it partakes of the power of the 
imagination as well as of the actuality of technology'. Cyborgs actually exist. 
About fO percent of the current U.S. population are estimated to be 
cyborgs in the technical sense, including people with electronic pacemak- 
ers, artificial joints, drug-implant systems, implanted corneal lenses, and 
artificial skin. A much higher percentage participates in occupations that 
make them into metaphoric cyborgs, including the computer keyboarder 
joined in a cybernetic circuit with the screen, the neurosurgeon guided by 
fiber-optic microscopy during an operation, and the adolescent game 
player in the local video-game arcade. “Terminal identity” Scott Bukatman 
has named this condition, calling it an “unmistakably doubled articulation” 
that signals the end of traditional concepts of identity even as it points to- 
ward the cybernetic loop that generates a new kind of subjectivity. 6 

Limbo edges uneasily toward this subjectivity and then only with signif- 
icant reservations. Instead of a circuit, it envisions polarities joined by a 
hyphen: human-machine, male-female, text-marginalia. The difference 
between hyphen and circuit lies in the tightness of the coupling (recall 
Wiener s argument about the virtues of loose coupling) and in the degree to 
which the hyphenated subject is transfigured after becoming a cybernetic 
entity. Whereas the hyphen joins opposites in a metonymic tension that 
can be seen as maintaining the identity of each, the circuit implies a more 
reflexive and transformative union. When the body is integrated into a cy- 
bernetic circuit, modification of the circuit will necessarily modify con- 
sciousness as w'ell. Connected by multiple feedback loops to the objects it 
designs, the mind is also an object of design. In Limbo the ideology 1 of the 
hyphen is threatened by the more radical implications of the cybernetic 
splice. Like Norbert Wiener, the patron saint of Limbo, Wolfe responds to 
this threat with anxiety. To see how this anxiety’ both generates the text and 
fails to contain the subversive implications of cybernetics, let us turn now to 
a consideration of this phantasmic narrative. 

Limbo presents itself as the notebooks of Dr. Martine, a neurosurgeon 
who defiantly left his medical post in World War III and fled to an un- 
charted Pacific island. He finds the islanders, the Mandunji tribe, practic- 
ing a primitive form of lobotomy to quiet the “tonus” in antisocial people. 7 
Thus the text reiuseribes the privileged status of homeostasis during the 
Macy period and also glances toward Wiener s devastating criticism of lo- 
botomy in the 1948 Cybernetics and the 1950 The Human Use of Human 
Beings . s Wiener’s interest in lobotomy is played out in a short story he 

1 1 6 / Chapter Five 

wrote entitled “The Brain, ’’with which Wolfe may have been familiar. Pub- 
lished in a 1 950 science fiction anthology under the transparent pseudo- 
nym “W. Norbert,” the story was explicitly attributed by the editor to 
Norbert Wiener. 

In the story, a mental patient’s attending physician brings the patient as a 
guest to an intellectual dinner club for “a small group of scientists.” 9 The 
dinner conversation is reminiscent of the Macy discussions. During dinner 
the patient, a victim of amnesia, faints. When he comes to with the help of 
drugs, he begins to recall the trauma that caused his amnesia. He remem- 
bers that he himself was a physician and that his wife was fatally injured and 
his child made into a vegetable in a hit-and-run accident caused by a 
fiendishly clever gangster called “The Brain.” Later, fate delivered the 
gangster into the doctor’s hands when he was called to perform emergency 
surgery on the gangster, who had received a bullet wound to the head. Dur- 
ing the operation, the doctor quietly performs a lobotomy. Later the gang- 
ster is caught because he has become stupid. 

Like the protagonist of “The Brain,” Dr. Martine in Limbo performs lo- 
botomies for the social good, rationalizing that it is better to do the surgery 
properly than to let people die from infections and botched jobs. He uses 
the operations to do neuroresearch on brain-function mapping. He discov- 
ers that no matter how deeply he cuts, certain characteristics appear to be 
twinned. One twin cannot be excised without sacrificing the other. When 
aggression is cut out, eroticism goes too; when violence yields to the sur- 
geon’s knife, creativity' also disappears. Martine expands his observations 
into a theory of human nature. Humans are essentially hyphenated crea- 
tures, he asserts, creative-destructive, peaceful-aggressive. The appear- 
ance on the island of “queer limbs,” men who have had their arms and legs 
amputated and replaced by atomic-powered plastic prosthescs, brings 
Martine’s philosophy of the hyphen into juxtaposition with the splice, the 
neologistie cutting, rejoining, and recircuiting that makes a cyb/ernetic 
org/anism into a cyborg. On the level of plot, the intrusion of the cyborgs 
gives Martine an excuse to leave his island family and find out how the 
w'orld has shaped up in the aftermath of the w'ar. 

The island/ mainland dichotomy is the first of a proliferating series of di- 
visions. Their production follows a characteristic pattern. First the narra- 
tive presents what appears to be a unity (the island locale; the human 
psyche), which nevertheless cleaves in two (mainlanders come to the is- 
land; twin impulses are located within the psyche). The cleavage arouses 
anxiety, and textual representations try' to achieve unity' again by undergo- 
ing metamorphosis, usually truncation or amputation (Martine and the 

From Hyphen to Splice / \ ry 

narrative leave the island behind and concentrate on the mainland, which 
posits itself as a unity; the islanders undergo lobotomies to make them 
“whole” citizens again). The logic implies that truncation is necessary if the 
part is to reconfigure itself as a whole. Better to formalize the split and ren- 
der it irreversible so that life can proceed according to a new definition of 
what constitutes wholeness. Without truncation, however painful it may 
be, the part is doomed to exist as a remainder. But amputation always 
proves futile in the end because the truncated part splits in two again and 
the relentless progression continues. 

Through delirious and savage puns, the text works out the permutations 
of this geography of the Imaginary 7 . America has been bombed back to the 
Inland Strip, its coastal areas now virtually uninhabited wastelands. The 
image of a truncated country, its outer extremities blasted away, proves 
prophetic, for the ruling political ideology is Immob. Imrnob espouses such 
slogans as “No Demobilization without Immobilization” and “Pacifism 
means Passivity.” Citing Napoleon, Paul Virilio wrote, “ The capacity for 
war is the capacity for movement ,” 10 Immob reinscribes that proposition 
and reverses its import, reasoning that the only way to end war is to remove 
the capacity' for motion. True believers become “vol-amps,” men who have 
undergone voluntary amputations of their limbs. Social mobility paradoxi- 
cally translates into physical immobility. Upwardly mobile executives have 
the complete treatment to become quadroamps; janitors are content to be 
uniamps; women and blacks are relegated to the limbo of unmodified bod- 
ies. But like the constructions that preceded it, Immob ideology also splits 
in two. The majority party, discovering that its adherents are restless lying 
around with nothing to do, approves the replacement of missing limbs with 
powerful prostheses (or “pros”), which bestow enhanced mobility and en- 
able those who wear them to perform athletic feats impossible for unal- 
tered bodies. These cyborgs are called (in a twinning pun that tries to 
encompass the cyborg under the sign of the hyphen) “Pro-pros.” The logic 
of the hyphen dictates that Pro-pros be mirrored by Anti-pros, w'ho believe 
that cyborgism is a perversion of Immob philosophy. Anti-pros spend their 
days proselytizing for voluntary amputation , using microphones hooked up 
to the baby baskets that are just the right size to accommodate their limb- 
less human torsos, a detail that later becomes significant. 

Unity, cleavage, truncation, and further cleavage — these are the coun- 
ters through which geopolitical and cybernetic endo-colonization are rep- 
resented in Limbo. Amputations, undertaken in an effort to stop the 
proliferation of doubleness, only drive the plot toward the next phase of 
the cycle, for they are nostalgic attempts to recover a unity that never was. 

i i 8 / Chapter Five 

This much Wolfe sees clearly. Less clear is the increasingly urgent issue of 
how the parts should be reassembled: through a hyphen or through a cir- 
cuit? I suggested earlier that the cyborg subverts Martines (and Wolfe s) 
theory of the hyphen, for it implies that the hyphenated polarities will not 
be able to maintain their identity unchanged. This possibility, although not 
explicitly recognized by the narrator, is already encoded into the text, for 
the amputations intended to ensure that pacifism is irrevocable have in- 
stead ensured that the interface between human and machine is irrevoca- 
ble. Although the Pro-pros justify the use ofprostheses by pointing out that 
the pros can be detached, many of the changes (such as permanently in- 
stalled bio-sockets into which the pros are snapped) have become integral 
parts of the organism. In a larger sense, the conversions have worked such 
far-reaching changes in social and economic infrastructures that a return to 
aprecybernetic state is not possible. Whether functioning as an amputee or 
a prosthetic athlete, the citizen of Limbo’s world is spliced into cybernetic 
circuits that irreversibly connect his body to the truncated, military-indus- 
trial limbo that the world has become. In the circuit of metaphoric ex- 
changes that the cyborg sets up, the narrator finds it increasingly difficult to 
maintain the hyphenated separations that allow Wolfe to criticize capitalist 
society while maintaining intact his own sexist and technological assump- 
tions. Breakdown occurs when the hyphen is no longer sufficient to keep 
body, gender, and political categories separate from one another. 

In exploring this breakdown, I will go further into Wolfe s background 
and his relation to cybernetics. Not one to disguise his sources, he adds an 
afterword in which he lists the books that have influenced him. In case any- 
one missed his frequent allusions to Norbert Wiener, the afterword makes 
clear that Wiener is a seminal figure. The title Wolfe cites is Winner’s 1948 
Cybernetics. I noted earlier that the cyborg is both a technological entity 
and a discursive construction. The chapters ofWiener s book illustrate how 
discourse collaborates with technology to create cyborgs. The transforma- 
tions that Wiener envisions are for far simpler mechanisms than human be- 
ings, but his explanations work as rhetorical software (Richard Doyles 
phrase) 11 to extend his conclusions to complex human behaviors as well. 
We saw the same kind of slippage during the Maey discussions. Here is how 
it characteristically occurs in Wieners text. First a behavior is noted — an 
intention tremor, a muscle contraction, a phobic or philic reaction to a stim- 
ulus. Next an electronic or mathematical model that can produce the same 
behavior is proposed. Sometimes the model is used to construct a cyber- 
netic mechanism that can be tested experimentally. Whether actual con- 
struction takes place or the idea remains a thought experiment, the claim is 

From Hyphen to Splice / 119 

made that the human mechanism, although unknown, might plausibly be 
the same as the mechanism embodied in the model. The laboratory “white 
box” is thus discursively equated with the human “black box,” with the re- 
sult that the human is now also a “white box,” that is, a servo-mechanism 
whose workings are known. Once the correlation is made, cybernetics can 
be used not only to correct dysfunction but also to improve normal func- 
tioning. As a result, the cyborg signifies something more than a retrofitted 
human. It points toward an improved hybrid species that has the capacity' 
to be humanity’s evolutionary successor. As we saw in chapter 4, the prob- 
lem that Wiener encountered was how to restrain this revolutionary poten- 
tial of cybernetics so that it would not threaten the liberal humanism that so 
deeply informed his thinking. 

In “Self Portrait,” a short story published a few months before Limbo 
and concerned with similar themes, Wolfe shows that he understands the 
limitations as well as the potential ofWiener s method. “Cybernetics is sim- 
ply the science of building machines that will duplicate and improve on the 
organs and functions of the animal, based on what we know about the sys- 
tems of communication and control in the animal,” the narrator says. But 
he acknowledges that “everything depends on just how 7 many of the func- 
tions you want to duplicate, just how much of the total organ you want to re- 
place.” 12 In charge of a cybernetics laboratory, he decides to separate 
kinesthetic and neural functioning. He can be reasonably sure of creating 
an artificial limb that moves like a real one, but connecting it to the body’s 
sensory-neural circuits is another matter. 13 His hesitation points up how 
speculative many of Wiener’s claims were. More than a technology 7 , they 
functioned as an ideology 7 . Without mentioning Wolfe, Douglas D. Noble, 
in “Mental Materiel: The Militarization of Learning and Intelligence in 
U.S. Education,” argues that the cybernetic paradigm has in fact brought 
about massive transformations in U.S. social, economic, and educational 
infrastructures, as Wolfe predicted it would. 14 In his view, these transfor- 
mations have been driven primarily by the U.S. military. The cyborg, Noble 
insists, is no science fiction fantasy but an accurate image of the modern 
American soldier, including pilots wired into “intelligent cockpits,” ar- 
tillery gunners connected to computerized guidance systems, and infantry 
soldiers w'hose ground attacks are instantaneously broadcast on global tele- 
vision. His analysis, consistent with arguments by military strategists for 
“neocortical warfare” and with the picture that Chris Gray draws of the mil- 
itary’s interest in the cyborg, 15 indicates that Wiener’s antimilitary stance 
was not sufficient to prevent the marriage of war and cybernetics, a union 
that he both feared and helped to initiate. 

i 20 / Chapter Five 

Limbo takes the leap that “Self Portrait” resists, imagining that under 
the stimulus of war, the machine component, no longer limited to mimick- 
ing an organic limb, is hardwired into the human nervous system to form an 
integrated cybernetic circuit. This movement toward the splice is figured 
in Limbo through tropes of motion. Here Wolfe follows Wieners lead, for 
most of Wiener' s examples concentrate on dysfunctions of movement. The 
intention tremor provided Wiener with one of his first experimental suc- 
cesses. Through a mechanism that duplicated the behavior of an intention 
tremor, Wiener diagnosed the problem as an inappropriate positive ampli- 
fication of feedback and showed how it could be cured. Other kinds of 
movement dysfunctions are similarly diagnosed in the 1948 Cybernetics. 
Even phenomena not obviously associated with motor skills are figured as 
various kinds of motion. Thinking, for example, is figured as movement 
across neural synapses, and schizophrenia is represented as a feedback 
problem in the cognitive-neural loop. Wieners emphasis on movement im- 
plies that curing dysfunctions of movement can cure the patient of what- 
ever ails him, whether muscular, neural, or psychological. Given this 
context, what could be more cybernetic than to construct war as a dysfunc- 
tion of movement? In this sense, Limbo follows the line of thought that 
Wiener mapped out in Cybernetics , down to particular phrasings that 
Wolfe appropriates. Because in many respects Wolfe follows Wiener so 
closely, the departure he makes in insisting on the typographic hyphen 
rather than the cybernetic splice is even more significant. In the end, how- 
ever, his resistance to the splice fails to restrain the scarier implications of 
cybernetics, much as Wiener’s resistance to the cybernetic penetration of 
boundaries failed to prevent the dissolution of the liberal hum anist subject. 

The breakdown ot Wolfe’s “hyphenation” theory occurs, perhaps pre- 
dictably, when the hyphen is no longer sufficient to contain the repressed 
violence that the cyborg unleashes (uncannily so, for the text operates as if 
Wolfe were unconsciously reenacting, from Wiener’s war work on antiair- 
craft devices, the mapping of enemy onto self). In the world of Limbo, war- 
fare has been replaced by a Superpower Olympics between the capitalist 
Inland Strip and the communist East Union, a competition designed 
to sublimate lethal violence into healthy competition. But in the 1990 
Olympics, as if in recognition of Wiener 1 s failure to prevent the promiscu- 
ous coupling of cybernetics with military research after World War II, cy- 
borg competition neologistically slides into warfare rather than 
metonymically substitutes for it. Athletes from both sides are vol-amps, 
and they owe their victories as much to the technicians who design the 
prostheses as they do to their athletic abilities. Traditionally the Inland 

From Hyphen r o Splice / 121 

Strip, with its superior technology, has dominated the Olympics. Vishinu, 
leader of the East Union, announces that this year it will be different. His 
people are tired of the imperialist smugness of the Inland Strip and will 
demonstrate that they are no second-rate colonials but are superior cyber- 
neticians. The East Union cyborgs proceed to sweep the competition, win- 
ning every category. 

For weeks before the event, Vishinu has darkly hinted at the growing 
schism between the two countries. The rare metal columbium is needed to 
make the prostheses on which both sides depend, and the East Union al- 
leges that the Inland Strip has been trying to hoard the world s columbium 
supply. At the final ceremony, instead of confirming that East Union cyber- 
neticians will share their technology with the Inland Strip (as custom 
dictates), Vishinu signals the East Union athletes to unveil their newest 
prosthetic innovation: artificial arms that terminate in guns. According to 
the West’s own logic, Vishinu satirically argues, the East Union’s triumph in 
cybernetics means that it has won the right to all the world’s columbium. 
While Martine watches incredulously on his television at a remote moun- 
tain retreat, the East Union cyborgs open fire on the reviewing stand where 
Inland Strip officials are seated. The apparatus of war has imploded inward 
to join with flesh and bone. As a result of this cybernetic splice, war radiates 
from body zones outward. 

In the last w'ar, when the EMSIAC computer mindlessly tried to return 
Martine’s plane to base — which would have returned him to almost certain 
death — Martine ripped out the circuit cables and destroyed the communi- 
cation-control box. But now' endocolonization has proceeded far enough 
into the human and political body so that he can no longer disable the cir- 
cuit simply by ripping out cables. Instead of fleeing to the margins, he 
rushes toward the center, returning to the capital and demanding an audi- 
ence with Helder, Vishinu s western counterpart. He uses as his calling card 
cryptic allusions to an incident that only he and Helder know about — an in- 
cident that hints at the network of anxieties that have been activated 
through cyborg circuitry. The return of these repressed anxieties takes the 
form of a corpse that, refusing to stay buried, haunts the narrative. 
Throughout Martine s notebook, references to it have surfaced in puns and 
half-remembered flashes. Finally, with the outbreak of w'ar, the repressed 
memories erupt into full articulation. The corpses name is Rosemary', a 
nurse that Helder took to a college peace rally at which he delivered a fiery 
speech. He returned with her to her apartment, tried to have sex with her, 
and when she refused, brutally raped her. After he left, she committed sui- 
cide by slashing her wrists. Martines part in the affair was to provide a 

1 2 2 / Chapter Five 

reluctant alibi for his roommate Helder, allowing Helder to escape prose- 
cution for the rape-manslaughter. The placement of Martine s recollection 
of the incident and his use of it to address the political crisis hint that the 
body politic and the politics of the body, like prostheses and trunk, are 
spliced together in an integrated circuit. 

Throughout the text, the narrator— and behind him, the author — has 
exhibited profound ambivalence toward women. This ambivalence, like so 
much else in Wolfe’s cybernetic novel, is figured through tropes of motion. 
Shortly after his arrival at the Inland Strip, Martine looks down onto the 
balcony of the apartment below and sees a quadroamp lying on a lounge 
reading a book. A young woman tries to arouse him sexually and begins to 
remove his prostheses. Uninterested, the young man pushes her away and 
resumes reading. The incident illustrates how sexual politics work under 
Immob. Prohibited from becoming vol-amps, women have taken the ini- 
tiative in sexual encounters. They refuse to have sex with men wearing 
prostheses, for the interface between organism and mechanism is not per- 
fect and at moments of stress or tension the limbs are apt to careen out of 
control, smashing whatever is in the vicinity. Partnered with truncated, im- 
mobilized men, women have perfected techniques that are performed in 
the female superior position and that give them satisfaction while requiring 
no motion from the men. Martine gets a firsthand demonstration when 
Neen, an artist visiting from the East Union, seduces him. To Martine, the 
idea that men would be immobile during sex is obscene, for he believes that 
the only normal sexual experience for women is a “vaginal’’ orgasm reached 
using the male superior position. Like his Victorian antecedents, Martine 
atavistically polices what kinds of movements are proper for women during 
sexual intercourse, enforcing them with violence when necessary. To re- 
venge himself on Neen and assure himself that he has not been emascu- 
lated after her “elitoral” orgasm, he rapes her and forces her to have a 
“vaginal” orgasm, which the text assures us she enjoys in spite of herself. 
H ere the rape occurs in a context where Wolfe is in control of the dynamics, 
for it reflects his own deeply misogynistic views. Nevertheless, the narra- 
tive keeps moving toward the moment when another rape will be recalled 
and when the cyborg circuitry in which the narrator is enmeshed will make 
authorial control much less certain. 

On a structural level, the text strives to maintain the ideological purity of 
male identity by constructing categorical and hierarchical differences be- 
tween men and women. The man has a real penis, the woman a shadowy 
surrogate that the narrator calls a “phantom penis”; the man is active, the 
woman passive; the man has a single orgasm of undoubted authenticity, 

From Hyphen to Splice / 123 

whereas the womans orgasms are duplicitous as well as double. The man 
responds to sexual aggression, but (the narrator insists) it is the woman who 
initiates sexual violence, even when she is raped. So far the novel reads like 
a devil’s dictionary of sexist beliefs that are Neolithic even by the standards 
of the 1950s. Yet at the same time, the text also edges toward a realization 
that it cannot unequivocally articulate. Like man and machine, male and 
female are spliced together in a feedback circuit that makes them mutually 
determine each other. No less than geopolitical ideology, sexual ideology is 
subverted and reconfigured by the cybernetic paradigm. 

Wolfe’s outrageously sexist views echo those of his psychoanalyst 
Edmund Bergler, by whom he was deeply influenced. 1 6 Bergler acknowl- 
edged that it could be difficult for some women to reach orgasm in the male 
superior position, but he nevertheless insisted that only this position and 
only “vaginal” orgasms were normal for women. The view is inscribed in 
Limbo, where the usual (as distinct from “normal”) state for women is 
frigidity. Martine applies the label liberally, using it to describe every 
woman ■with whom he is intimate except one, his island wife, Ooda. F rigid- 
ity' applies both to women who are too aggressive (like N een ) and to women 
who find sex with Martine unsatisfying (like his first wife, Irene, whose con- 
nection with Neen is signified by the rhyme connecting their names). With 
astonishing blindness, he never considers that the dysfunction might lie in 
him or his view of women. The text strives to endorse the narrator’s blind- 
ness. Yet it also engenders ambiguities beyond the narrator’s control and 
perhaps beyond Wolfe’s. 

The kind of cyborg that Wolfe envisions locates the cybernetic splice at 
the joining of appendage to trunk. As the placement of the splice suggests, 
the novel’s sexual politics revolve around fear of symbolic and actual castra- 
tion, manifested as extreme anxiety about issues of control and domination . 
Wolfe, described by his biographer as a small man with a large mustache 
and fat cigar, creates in Irnrnob a fantasy about technological extensions of 
the male body that endow it with supernatural power. 1 7 During the sex act, 
however, the extensions are laid aside, and only a truncated body remains. 
If the artificial limbs swell to an unnatural potency, the hidden price is the 
withering of the limb called, in U.S. slang, the third leg or the short arm. 
The connection becomes explicit when Martine discovers that his son, 
Tom, whom he has not seen in twenty years, has become an activist in the 
Anti-pro cause. Tom is aquadroamp, spending his days spreading the word 
from the baby basket that accommodates his limbless trunk. When war 
breaks out, his already truncated body is mutilated by exploding glass 
shards. Martine finds him in the street, lifts the blanket that covers his 

i 2 4 / Chapter Five 

trunk, and sees the mark of castration as well as the wounded torso. He then 
shoots Tom, ostensibly to put him out of his misery and perhaps also to ex- 
orcise the specter of castration he represents. 

In more than one sense, Limbo is a masculine fantasy that relates to 
women through mechanisms of projection. It is, moreover, a fantasy fixated 
in male adolescence. Wavering between infantile dependence and adult 
potency, Immob re-creates, every time a man takes off his prostheses to 
have sex, the dynamic typical of male adolescence. With the pros on, a vol- 
amp is capable of feats that even pros like O. J. Simpson and Mike Tyson 
would envy. With the pros off, he is reduced to infantile dependence on 
women. The unity sought in becoming a vol-amp is given the lie by the split 
he experiences within himself as a superman and a symbolically castrated 
infant. The woman is constructed in correspondingly ambivalent ways — as 
a willing victim to male violence, a nurturing mother who infantilizes her 
son, and a domineering sex partner all too willing to find pleasure in the 
man’s symbolic castration. The instabilities in her subject position are con- 
sistent with the ambiguities characteristic of male adolescence. The narra- 
tive’s overwritten prose, penchant for puns, and hostility toward women all 
recall a perpetually adolescent male who has learned to use what Martine 
calls a “screen of words” to compete with other men and to insulate himself 
from emotional involvements with women . 

Were this all Limbo was, the novel would be merely frustrating rather 
than frustrating and brilliant. What makes it compelling is its ability' to rep- 
resent and comment on its own limitations. Consider the explanation that 
Martine gives for why Immob has been so successful. The author drops a 
broad hint in the baby baskets that Immob devotees adopt. In a theory 
adapted from Bergler’s book on narcissism, Wolfe has his narrator suggest 
that the narcissistic wound from which the amputations derive is the male 
infant’s separation from the mother and his outraged discovery that his 
body is not coextensive with the world. 18 Amputation allows the man to re- 
turn to his pre-Oedipal state, where he will have his needs cared for by at- 
tentive and nurturing females. In locating the moment of trauma before 
the Oedipal triangle, Wolfe reenacts the same kind of move that Lacan 
makes in his revision of Freud. Whereas Freud identified the male child’s 
fear of castration with the moment when he sees female genitalia and con- 
structs them as lack, Wolfe (following Bergler) places the anxious moment 
considerably earlier, in the series of “splittings” and separations that the in- 
fant experiences from his primary love object, the mother. 19 Given this sce- 
nario, the catalyst for anxiety is not the woman’s lack but the ambiguity of 
boundaries between infant and mother. The mother is the object of pro- 

From Hyphen to Splice / 125 

jected anger for two contradictory but paradoxically reinforcing reasons. 
When she withdraws from the infant, she traumatizes him; when she does 
not withdraw, she engulfs him. The question of who is responsible for the 
narcissistic wound and its aftermath is a matter for anxious consideration in 
Limbo — a query presupposing that the violation of boundaries is central to 
the formation of male subjectivity. In its stagings of traumatic moments of 
“splitting,” the text vacillates on its answers to the question. At times it 
seems that the woman is appropriating the male infant into her body; at 
other times it seems that the amputated men are willfully forcing women 
into nurturing roles they would rather escape. In fact, once male and fe- 
male are plugged into a cybernetic circuit, the question of origin becomes 
irrelevant. Each constitutes the other. In approaching this realization, the 
text goes beyond the presuppositions that underlie its sexual politics as it 
gropes, however tentatively, toward cyborg subjectivity. 

Crucial to this process are transformations in the textual body, trans- 
formations that reenact and re-present the textual dynamics of Immob. 
The textual body begins by figuring itself as Martine’s notebook “mark ii,” 
written in the narrative present. In this notebook, Martine notices that 
Immob slogans have a disturbingly familiar ring, particularly the icon of a 
man getting run over by a steamroller (intended to symbolize technology 
before Immob, although for the narrator and reader it precisely charac- 
terizes Immob). Only when war erupts does Martine realize why the 
steamroller image is eerily familiar. In a notebook that he wrote two 
decades earlier and that he entitled “mark i ,” he used the steamroller as an 
ironic emblem for the war machine. In the same notebook and in a simi- 
larly ironic vein, he wrote a satiric fantasy of a society in which people pre- 
empt the atrocities of war by voluntarily cutting off their own limbs. After 
Martine deserted and rerouted his plane to the island, Helder found the 
notebook among Martine’s gear and decided to use the satire as a blue- 
print for an actual postwar society. Surrounding Martine’s bitter jokes 
with his own flat-footed, self-serving commentary, he ventriloquized 
Martine’s words, making them speak the message he wanted, not what 
Martine intended. Martine’s notebook thus functions like a child whom 
he abandoned (just as he abandoned his son, Tom, when he fled) and who 
then was turned into the very thing Martine dreaded most (as was Tom). 
The present narrative is recorded in the “mark ii” notebook. The revela- 
tion that the Immob bible is actually Martine’s (mis)appropriated “mark i” 
notebook demonstrates that the body of the text is subject to the same 
kind of cleavages, truncations, and further cleavages that mark the bodies 
represented within the text. 

126 / Chapter Five 

Although Martine tries to heal the split narrative by renouncing the first 
notebook and destroying the second, the narrative continues to fragment. 
The form this fragmentation takes is significant, for it follows the geogra- 
phy of Immob. The text splits into a trunk, consisting of the main narrative, 
and prosthetic extensions constituted through drawings that punctuate the 
text and lines that scrawl down the page where the trunk ends. Prosthesis 
and trunk are connected through puns that act like cyborg circuitry, splic- 
ing the organic body of the writing together with the prosthetic extensions 
that operate in a subvocal margin. Pros are thus punningly and cunningly 
linked not only with the hyphenated Pro-pros but also with the more dan- 
gerous and circuitous cyborg “pros/e,” the truncated/spliced noun that 
speaks the name of the texts body (prose) as well as the name of the pros- 
theses (pros) attached to it and represented within it. 

Wolfe is not the only writer to link writing and prosthesis. In Prosthesis, 
David Wills explores connections between his father s wooden leg and the 
language that the son adopted as his prosthesis of choice. Trunk and pros- 
thesis, body and writing, are alike in having limits and in having relations 
with something beyond those limits. “Prosthesis is the writing of my self as 
a limit to writing,” Wills explains as he interrogates the boundaries and 
splicings between the body of his prose and his (fathers) body in prose. 
“There is no simple name for a discourse that articulates with, rather than 
issuing from, the body, while at the same time realizing that there is 
no other discourse — in the sense of no other translation, transfer, or rela- 
tion — no other conception of it except as it is a balancing act performed by 
the body, a shift or transfer between the body and its exteriority .” 20 The 
conflation that Wills addresses in this difficult and subtle passage is the su- 
perimposition of a body of prose with bodies constituted within prose. The 
passage points toward a double entanglement of the textual corpus and the 
physical body. Writing is a way to extend the authors body into the exterior 
world; in this sense, it functions as a technological aid so intimately bound 
up with his thinking and neural circuits that it acts like a prosthesis. At the 
same time, the writing within itself is trying to come to terms with what it 
means to have a prosthesis, particularly with whether the prosthesis should 
be incorporated into the subject’s identity (in which case he becomes a cy- 
borg) or should remain outside (in which case the prosthesis is necessarily 
alien from the self and so not something one can use with the “natural” dex- 
terity). For Wolfe, the choice cannot be made in a clear-cut or unambigu- 
ous way. He can neither embrace the transformations that becoming a 
textual cyborg would imply nor remain content with an amputated text that 
has a limited range of motion. So he simultaneously crafts prosthetic exten- 

From Hyphen to Splice / 1 2 7 

sions for the text and forbids the text to recognize them as itself. Just as 
pros/e destabilizes the concept of the natural human body, so it also desta- 
bilizes the notion of a text contained and embodied solely within its typo- 
graphic markers. Pros/e implies a text spliced into a cybernetic circuit that 
reaches beyond the typography of the printed book into a variety of graphic 
and semiotic prostheses that it both authorizes and denies. 

It is no surprise to find, then, that the pros/ e of Limbo’s corpus implies a 
dispersed subjectivity 7 . Whereas the voice that speaks (from ) the text’s trunk 
is clearly characterized as Martine, the subject that produces and is pro- 
duced by the prosthetic marginalia is more difficult to identify. The ques- 
tion of which voice speaks from what textual body was a complicated issue 
in Wolfe’s career. To supplement his income, he worked for a while as a 
ghostwriter for Billy Rose’s syndicated column . Here his words issued from 
a body of print signed with someone else’s name. He also wrote for popular 
science magazines including Mechanix Illustrated, frequently contribut- 
ing to articles published under someone else s byline. In addition, he col- 
laborated on low-level popular science books. One of these, Plastics, What 
Everyone Should, Know, appeared under Wolfe s name, although it was 
written by someone else. 21 The synthetic chemical product that came of 
age in World War II and that Wolfe envisions as the substance of choice for 
prostheses thus functions as a kind of prosthesis for his corpus, extending 
his name through a body of print ventriloquized by someone else. 

To explore the complex play between Martine’s voiced narrative and the 
drawings, nonverbal lines, and punning neologisms that serve as prosthe- 
ses to the textual trunk, I want to consider one of the drawings in more de- 
tail. It show's a nude woman with three prosthetic legs — the Immob 
logo — -extruding from each of her nipples. 22 She wears glasses, carries a 
huge hypodermic needle, and has around her neck a series of tiny contigu- 
ous circles, which can be taken to represent the popular 1950s necklace 
known as a choker. To the right of her figure is a grotesque and diapered 
male torso, minus arms and legs, precariously perched on a flat carriage 
outfitted with Immob prosthetic legs instead of w’heels. He has his mouth 
open in a silent scream, perhaps because the woman appears to be aiming 
the needle at him. In the text immediately preceding the drawing, Rose- 
maiy is mentioned. Although the truncated text does not acknowledge the 
drawing and indeed seems unaware of its existence, the proximity of Rose- 
mary’s name indicates that the drawing is of her, with the needle presum- 
ably explained by her profession as a nurse. 

In a larger sense the drawing depicts the Immob woman. The voiced 
narrative ventriloquizes her body to speak of the injustices she has inflicted 

128 / Chapter Five 

on men, constructing her retrospectively as a cyborg who nourishes and 
emasculates cyborg sons. It makes her excess, signified by the needle that 
she brandishes and the legs that sprout from her nipples, responsible for 
her lover/son s lack. In this deeply misogynistic writing, it is no surprise to 
read that woman are raped because they want to be. Female excess is rep- 
resented as stimulating and encouraging male violence, and rape is poetic 
revenge for the violence women do to men when they are too young and 
helpless to protect themselves. The voiced narrative strives to locate the 
origin of the relentless dynamic of splitting and truncation within the fe- 
male body. According to this textual trunk, the refusal of the woman’s body 
to respect decent boundaries between itself and another initiates the 
downward spiral into amputation and eventual holocaust. 

Countering these narrative constructions are other interpretations au- 
thorized by the drawings, nonverbal lines, puns, and lapses in narrative 
continuity. F rom these semiotic spaces, which Julia Kristeva has associated 
with the feminine, come inversions and disruptions of the hierarchical cat- 
egories that the narrative uses to construct maleness and femaleness . 23 
Rosemary, written into nonexistence by her suicide within the text’s repre- 
sented world, returns in the prosthetic space of the drawing and demands 
to be acknowledged. On multiple levels, the drawing deconstructs the nar- 
rative’s gender categories. In the represented world, women are not al- 
lowed to be cyborgs, yet this female figure has more pros attached to her 
body than does any man . Women rank after men in the represented world, 
but here the woman’s body is on the left and is thus “read” before the man’s. 
Above all, women and men are separate and distinct in the represented 
world, but in this space, parts of the man’s body have attached themselves 
to her. Faced with these disruptions, the voiced narrative is forced to rec- 
ognize that it does not unequivocally control the textual space. The semi- 
otic intrusions contest its totalizing claims to write the world. 

The challenge is reflected within the narrative by internal contradictions 
that translate into pros/e the intimations of the semiotic disruptions. As the 
voiced narrative tries to come to grips with these contradictions, it cycles 
closer to the realization that the hierarchical categories of male and female 
have imploded into the same space. The lobotomies that Martine performs 
suggest the depth of this collapse. To rid the psyche (coded male in Limbo) 
of subversive (female) elements, it is necessary' to amputate. For a time the 
amputations work, allowing male performance to be enhanced by prosthe- 
ses that bestow new potency. But eventually these must be shed and the 
woman encountered again. Then the subvocal feminine within merges 
with the prostheses without, initiating a new cycle of violence and ampu- 

From Hyphen to Splice / 129 

tation. No matter how deeply the cuts are made, they can never excise 
the ambiguities that haunt and constitute these posthuman and post- 
typographic bodies. Limbo envisions cybernetics as a writing technology 
that inscribes over the hierarchical categories of traditional sexuality the in- 
determinate circuitry of cyborg gender. 

As a white male writing in the early 1950s, Wolfe was aware that the pol- 
itics of gender relations were beginning to shift. Several times, the narrator 
mentions “women’s liberation,” quarantined by quotation marks and au- 
thorial scorn. Nevertheless, even he cannot escape the feminine within. 
After ending his first notebook with a huge “NO” inscribed across the 
page, the narrator ends the second notebook with an equally vehement 
“YES,” which he intends as an affirmation of humankind s hyphenated na- 
ture, His mother’s birth name was Noyes (“No-yes”), and he dimly senses 
the connection between matrilineal heritage and the affirmation he seeks. 
But the hyphen is not the same as the splice. By inscribing Noyes as No-yes, 
he seeks to draw a line that will preserve each half of the hyphenation as a 
distinct entity. His voiced concessions to sexual politics are similarly limited 
to realizing that women are not entirely monsters. The real power relations 
at stake in sexist relations remain opaque to him, just as do the deeper im- 
plications of being wired into a cybernetic circuit. 

But Limbo knows more than it can say, a paradox inscribed within the 
text by the narrator’s image of a “screen of words” that hides something 
from him. Throughout, there are flashes of insight that exceed his formula- 
tions and that are never adequately accounted for by his theorizing. The ef - 
fect is finally of another voice trying to emerge, authored not so much by 
Wolfe as by the cybernetic circuit he can imagine but not fully articulate. 
Just as Martine’s first notebook has been ventriloquized by Helder, so the 
narrative as a whole is ventriloquized by a constellation of forces that make 
it speak of a future in which hyphenation gives way to the spliced pros/e 
that both signifies and is the cyborg. If the ownership of the writing with 
which the prosthesis signifies is unclear, the obscurity is appropriate, for it 
indicates that control in a cybernetic circuit is not a localized function but is 
an emergent property 7 . Neither entirely in control norout of control, Limbo 
teeters on the edge of an important recognition. 

In one sense, the bodies of Limbo are the cyborgs who populate the 
imaginative world of Immob. In another, more literal sense, the body of 
Limbo is constituted through the typefaces that march across the page. 
Normally readers attend to the represented world and only peripherally 
notice the physical body of the text. When the pros/e of Limbo itself be- 
comes a cyborg, however, the splice operates to join the imaginative world 

/ 3 o / Chapter Five 

of the signifier with the physical body of print. Parallels between a texts 
physical form and its represented world have a long history in literature, 
from the seventeenth-century monographic poems of George Herbert to 
the maps, tattoos, and body writing that litter the surfaces of Kathy Acker’s 
contemporary novels. What is distinctive about Wolfe’s use of the correla- 
tion is the suggestion that the bodies in the text and the body of the text not 
only represent cyborgs but also together compose a cyborg in which the ne- 
ologistic splice operates to join imaginative signification with literal physi- 
eality. In this integrated circuit, the physical body of the text and the bodies 
represented within the text evolve together toward a posthuman, post- 
typographic future in which human and intelligent machine are spliced to- 
gether in an integrated circuit, subjectivity is dispersed, vocalization is non- 
localized, bodies of print are punctuated with prostheses, and boundaries 
of many kinds are destabilized. More than a conduit through which ideas 
from cybernetics boiled into the wider U . S . culture in the 1950s, Limbo is a 
staging of the complex dynamics between cyborg and literary bodies. As 
such, it demonstrates that neither body will remain unchanged by the en- 

Chap r e r Six. 


It all started with a frog. In a classic article entitled “What the Frog’s Eye 
Tells the Frog’s Brain,” central players in the Macy group — including 
Warren McCulloch, Walter Pitts, and Jerry Lettvin — did pioneering work 
on a frog’s visual system. They demonstrated, with great elegance, that the 
frog’s visual system does not so much represent reality as construct it. 1 
What’s true for frogs must also hold for humans, for there’s no reason to be- 
lieve that the human neural system is uniquely constructed to show the 
world as it “really” is. Not everyone in the research group was interested in 
pursuing the potentially radical epistemological implications of this work. 
McCulloch, for example, remained wedded to realist epistemology. But a 
young neurophysiologist from Chile, Humberto Maturana, was also on the 
research team, and he used it as a springboard into the unknown. Pushing 
the envelope of traditional scientific objectivity, he developed a new way of 
talking about life and about the observer’s role in describing living systems. 
Entwined with the epistemological revolution he started are the three sto- 
ries we have been following: the reification of information, the cultural and 
technological construction of the cyborg, and the transformation of the hu- 
man into the posthuman. As a result of work by Maturana and his collabo- 
rator, Francisco Varela, all three stories took decisive turns during the 
second wave of cybernetics, from 1960 to 1985. This chapter follows the 
paths that Maturana and Varela took as they probed deeply into what it 
means to acknowledge that the observer, like the frog, does not so much 
discern preexisting systems as create them through the very act of observa- 

Central to the seriated changes connecting these second-wave develop- 
ments to the first wave is the difficult and protean concept of reflexivity. As 
we saw in chapter 3, participants in the Macy Conferences wrestled with 

> 3 ' 

\$2 / Chapter Six 

reflexivity, without much success. The particularities of the situation — the 
embedding of reflexivity within psychoanalytic discourse, Kubie s halito- 
sis of the personality', the unquantifiability of reflexive concepts — put a 
spin on reflexivity' that affected its subsequent development. 2 Gregory 
Bateson s 1968 conference had made clear that the problems posed by in- 
cluding the observer could be addressed only if a substantial rew'orking of 
realist epistemology was undertaken. The intuitive leap made by Bateson 
in concluding that the internal world of subjective experience is a metaphor 
for the external world remained a flash of insight rather than a quantita- 
tively reliable inference that experimentalists like Warren McCulloch 
could endorse. The problem was how to make the new epistemology' oper- 
ational by integrating it with an experimental program that would replace 
intuition with empirical data. 

At issue in this evolving series of events are questions crucially important 
to the technoscientific concepts of information, the cyborg, and the 
posthuman. Like Norbert Wiener, Maturana has strong ties with liberal 
humanism. At stake for him was how to preserve the central features of 
autonomy and individuality' w’hile still wrenching them out of the Cartesian 
and Enlightenment frameworks in which they are embedded. Even as he 
struggled mightily to “say something new,” his work replicates some 
assumptions of the first wave at the same time that it radically revises oth- 
ers. 3 We can see an early form of the struggle in the essays of Heinz von 
Foerster, the genial and well-connected Austrian emigre who functions as 
a transitional figure linking first- and second-wave cybernetics. From this 
beginning, we will trace the epistemological revolution that Maturana fo- 
mented, delineate its connections with the three stories we have been fol- 
lowing, and finally explore the differing assumptions that led Varela, 
Maturanas collaborator, to set off in a new direction. 

Reflexivity 7 Revisited 

Von Foerster left Austria in 1948, after working on microwave electronics 
for Germany during World War II, work that had important applications in 
radar (his 1949 vita lists much of this research as “secret”). 4 In the spring of 
1949 von Foerster wrote McCulloch, renowned for his generosity' in help- 
ing younger men, to seek his help in finding a job in North America. 5 
McCulloch found the Austrian a position at the University' of Illinois; 
he also introduced von Foerster into the Macy group. Soon afterward, 
McCulloch and Mead asked von Foerster ifhe would serve as principal ed- 
itor of the published transcripts. Although he had some misgivings because 

The Second Wave of Cybernetics / 133 

English was not his native language, he agreed. With his name emblazoned 
on the title pages, the published transcripts are associated with him as 
much as with anyone. 

It was not until the Macy Conferences had run their course, however, 
that von Foerster tried to develop more fully the epistemological implica- 
tions of including the observer as part of the system. The punning title of his 
essay collection, Observing Systems, announces reflexivity as a central 
theme. “Observing” is what (human) systems do; in another sense, (hu- 
man) systems themselves can be observed. The earliest essay (“On Self- 
Organizing Systems and Their Environments”), taken from a presentation 
given in 1 960, shows von F oerster thinking about reflexivity' as a circular dy- 
namic that can be used to solve the problem of solipsism. How does he 
know other people exist, he asks. Because he experiences them in his imag- 
ination. His experience leads him to believe that other people similarly ex- 
perience him in their imaginations. “If I assume that I am the sole reality', it 
turns out that I am the imagination of somebody else, who in turn assumes 
that he is the sole reality'.” 6 In a circle of intersecting solipsisms, I use my 
imagination to conceive of someone else and then of the imagination of that 
person, in which I find myself reflected. ' Thus I am reassured not only of 
the other person’s existence but of my own as well. Although charmingly 
posed, the argument is logically nonsensical, for there is no assurance that 
other imaginations are conceiving of me any more than I am conceiving of 
them. Maybe I am thinking not about von Foerster but about a Big Mac. 
That even a fledgling philosopher could reduce the argument to shreds is 
perhaps beside the point. Von Foerster himself seemed to recognize that 
the argument was the philosophical equivalent to pulling a rabbit from a 
hat, for he finally “solves” the paradoxical circling between solipsistic imag- 
inations by asserting what he was to prove, namely the existence of reality. 

Although the argument is far from rigorous, it is interesting for the line 
of thought it suggests. Its implications are illustrated by a cartoon (drawn by 
Gordon Pask at von Foerster s request) of a man in a bowler hat, in whose 
head is pictured another man in a bowler hat, in whose head is yet another 
man in a bowler hat. 8 The potentially infinite regress of men in bowler hats 
does more than create an image of the observer who observes himself by 
observing another. It also visually distinguishes the observer as a discrete 
system inside the larger system of the organism. In the aftermath of the 
Macy Conferences, one of the central problems with reflexivity was howto 
talk about it without falling into solipsism or resorting to psychoanalysis. 
The message from the Macy Conferences was clear: if reflexivity was to be 
credible, it had to be insulated against subjectivity and presented in a 

1 3 < / Chapter Six 

context in which it had at least the potential for rigorous (preferably math- 
ematical) formulation. As Norbert Wiener was later to proclaim, “Cyber- 
netics is nothing if it is not mathematical.” 9 Distinguishing the observer as 
a system separate from the organism was one way to make reflexivity more 
manageable, for it reduced the problem of the observer to a problem of 
communication among systems. 

Throughout the 1960s, von Foerster remained convinced of the impor- 
tance of reflexivity, and he experimented with various ways to formulate it, 
A breakthrough occurred in 1969, when he invited Maturana to speak at a 
conference at the University of Illinois. There Maturana unveiled his ideas 
about treating “cognition as a biological phenomenon.” 10 The power of 
Maturana’s theory must have deeply affected von Foerster, for his thinking 
about reflexivity takes a quantum leap in complexity after this date. The in- 
creased sophistication can be seen in his 1970 essay “Molecular Ethology: 
An Immodest Proposal for Semantic Clarification,” in which he criticizes 
bell aviorism by making the reflexive move of turning the focus from the ob- 
servation back onto the observer. Behaviorism does not demonstrate that 
animals are black boxes that give predictable outputs for given inputs, he 
argues. Rather, behaviorism shows the cleverness and power of the experi- 
menter in getting animals to behave as such. “Instead of searching for 
mechanisms in the environment that turn organisms into trivial machines, 
we have to find the mechanisms within the organisms that enable them to 
turn their environment into a trivial machine.” 11 Here reflexivity moves 
from men in bowler hats to the beginning of a powerful critique of objee- 
tivist epistemology. By 1972, von Foerster had been so thoroughly con- 
vinced by Maturana’s theory that one of the latest essays in Observing 
Systems, “Notes on an Epistemology of Living Things” (pp. 258-71), re- 
casts the theory in the form of a circular set of numbered quasi-mathemat- 
ical propositions, in which the last repeats the first. 

To trace the evolution of Maturana’s epistemology; let us turn now to the 
seminal paper “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the F l og’s Brain.” In it, Maturana 
and his coauthors demonstrate that the frog’s sensory receptors speak to 
the brain in a language highly processed and species-specific. To arrive at 
this conclusion, the authors implanted microelectrodes in a frog’s visual 
cortex to measure the strength of neural responses to various stimuli. At 
this point the frog’s brain became part of a cybernetic circuit, a bioappara- 
tus reconfigured to produce scientific knowledge. Strictly speaking, the 
frog’s brain had ceased to belong to the frog alone. I will therefore drop the 
possessive and follow the authors by referring to the frog’s brain simply as 
“the brain” (a phrase that eerily echoes the title of Norbert Wiener’s short 

The Second Wave of Cybernetics / 133 

story discussed in chapter 5). F rom the wired-up brain, the researchers dis- 
covered that small objects in fast, erratic motion elicited maximum re- 
sponse, whereas large, slow-moving objects evoked little or no response. It 
is easy to see how such perceptual equipment is adaptive from the frog's 
point of view, because it allows the frog to perceive flies while ignoring 
other phenomena irrelevant to its interests. The results implied that the 
frog’s perceptual system does not so much register reality' as construct it. As 
the authors noted, their work “shows that the f frog s] eye speaks to the brain 
in a language already highly organized and interpreted instead of transmit- 
ting some more or less accurate copy of the distribution of light upon the 
receptors.” 12 The work led Maturana to the maxim fundamental to his epis- 
temology': “Everything said is said by an observerlfAC, p. xxii). No wonder 
the article was quickly recognized as a classic, for it blew a frog-sized hole in 
realist epistemology. 

Despite the potentially radical implications of the article’s con tent, how- 
ever, its form reinscribed conventional realist assumptions of scientific dis- 
course. The results are reported in an objectivist rhetoric that masks the 
fact they are interpreted through the sensory and cognitive interfaces of 
embodied researchers, whose perceptions were at least as transformative 
as the frog’s. Years later, Maturana would recall that he and Lettvin contin- 
ued to work in an objectivist framework even as that framework was being 
called into question by their research. In the preface to Autopoiesis and 
Cognition: The Realization of the Living, Maturana recalled: “When Jerry' 
Y. Lettvin and I wrote our several articles on frog vision . . . we did it with 
the implicit assumption that we were handling a clearly defined cognitive 
situation: there was an objective (absolute) reality, external to the animal, 
and independent of it (not determined by it), which it could perceive (cog- 
nize). . . . But even there the epistemology that guided our thinking and 
writing was that of an objective reality independent of the observer” (AC, 
p. xiv). Faced with this inconsistency, Maturana had a choice. He could 
continue to work within the prevailing assumptions of scientific objectivity, 
or he could devise a new epistemology that would construct a worldview' 
consistent with what he thought the experimental work shownd. 

The break came with his work on color vision in other animals, including 
birds and primates. He and his coauthors (not the Macy group this time) 
found they could not map the visible world of color onto the activity of the 
nervous system. 13 There was no one-to-one correlation between percep- 
tion and the wnrld. They could, however, correlate activity in an animals 
retina with its experience of color. If we think of sense receptors as consti- 
tuting a boundary between outside and inside, this implies that organiza- 

f 3 6 / Chapter Six 

tionally, the retina matches up with the inside, not the outside. From this 
and other studies, Maturana concluded that perception is not fundamen- 
tally representational. He argued that to speak of an objectively existing 
world is misleading, for the very idea of a world implies a realm that preex- 
ists its construction by an observer. Certainly there is something “out 
there,” which for lack of a better term we can call “reality.” But it comes into 
existence for us, and for all living creatures, only through interactive pro- 
cesses determined solely by the organism’s own organization . “No descrip- 
tion of an absolute reality is possible,” he and Varela wrote in Autopoiesis 
and Cognition , for such a description “would require an interaction with 
the absolute to be described, but the representation that would arise from 
such an interaction would necessarily be determined by the autopoietic or- 
ganization of the observer . . . hence, the cognitive reality 7 that it would gen- 
erate would unavoidably be relative to the observer” (AC, p. 121). Thus he 
was led to a premise fundamental to his theory: living systems operate 
within the boundaries of an organization that closes in on itself and leaves 
the world on the outside. 

With Varela, Maturana developed the implications of this insight in 
Autopoiesis and Cognition. lie arrived at his theory, he explains in the in- 
troduction, by deciding to treat “the activity of the nervous system as deter- 
mined by the nervous system itself, and not by the external world; thus the 
external world would have only a triggering role in the release of the inter- 
nally-determined activity 7 of the nervous system” (AC, p. xv). His key in- 
sight was to realize that if the action of the nervous system is determined by 
its organization, the result is a circular, self-reflexive dynamic. A living sys- 
tem’s organization causes certain products to be produced, for example, 
nucleic acids. These products in turn produce the organization character- 
istic of that living system. To describe this circularity, he coined the term 
autopoiesis or self-making. “It is the circularity of its organization that 
makes a living system a unit of interactions,” he and Varela wrote in Au- 
topoiesis and Cognition , “and it is this circularity that it must maintain in or- 
der to remain a living system and to retain its identity through different 
interactions” (AC, p. 9). Building on this premise of autopoietic closure, 
Maturana developed a new and startlingly different account of how we 
know the world. 14 

What is this account? One path into it is to regard the account as an at- 
tempt to counteract anthropomorphic projection by clearly distinguishing 
between two domains of description. On the one hand, there is what one 
can say about the circularity of autopoietic processes in themselves, taking 
care not to attribute to them anything other than what they exhibit. On the 

The Second Wave of Cybernetics / 137 

other hand, there are the inferences that observers draw when they place 
an antopoietie system in the context of an environment. Seeing system and 
medium together over a period of time, observers draw connections be- 
tween cause and effect, past and future. But these are the observers’ infer- 
ences; they are not intrinsic to the autopoietic processes in themselves. 
Let’s say I see a blue jay flash through the trees and settle on the birdbath. I 
may think, “Oh, it’s getting a drink.” Other species, for example those lack- 
ing color vision, would react to this triggering event with different con- 
structions. A frog might notice the quick, erratic flight but be oblivious to 
the blue jay at rest. Each living system thus constructs its environment 
through the “domain of interactions” made possible by its autopoietic or- 
ganization. What lies outside that domain does not exist for that system. 
Maturana, realizing that he was fighting a long tradition of realist assump- 
tions deeply embedded in everyday language, developed an elaborate vo- 
cabulary as a prophylactic against having anthropomorphism creep back in. 
The necessity of finding a new language in which to express his theory was 
borne home to him during the student revolution in Chile in May 1968. It 
was then, he wrote in Autopoiesis and Cognition, that he discovered that 
“language was a trap, but the whole experience was a wonderful school in 
which one could discover how mute, deaf and blind one was . . .one began 
to listen and one’s language began to change; and then, but only then, new 
things could be said” (AC, p. xvi). 

Shortly we wall analyze places where Maturana, like the participants in 
the Maey Conferences, seems unable to escape from the tar baby of self- 
reflexive language. For the moment, however, let us explore the “new 
things” he tried to say. No doubt the cumbersome — many would not hesi- 
tate to call it tortured — quality of his language will be immediately appar- 
ent to the reader. 15 Before we judge it harshly, however, we should 
remember that Maturana was attempting nothing less than to give a differ- 
ent account of how we know the world. Since it is partly through language 
that humans bring worlds into being for themselves, he was in the impossi- 
ble position of pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, trying to articulate 
the new by using the only language available, the lingua franca whose 
meanings had long ago settled along lines very different from those he was 
trying to envision. 

We can start with that most problematic of constructions, the observer. 
From Maturana s point of view, the “fundamental cognitive operation that 
an observer performs is the operation of distinction” (AC, p. xxii). Influ- 
enced by G. Spencer-Brown, Maturana (and even more so Varela in his 
work Principles of Biological Autonomy ) 16 sees the operation of distinction 

/ 3 S / Chapter Six 

as marking space so that an undifferentiated mass is separated into an in- 
side and an outside or, in Maturana’s terminology', into a unity and a 
medium in which the unity is embedded. U nities distinguished by the ob- 
server can be of two types, simple and composite. A simple unity' “only has 
the properties with which it is endowed by the operations of distinction 
through which it becomes separated from a background.” Composite uni- 
ties, by contrast, have “structure and organization,” (AC, p. xx), terms that 
Maturana uses in special senses and that require further explanation. 

A composite unity's organization is the complex web of all possible rela- 
tionships that can be realized by the autopoietic processes as they interact 
with one another. When Maturana speaks of a system s organization, he 
does not mean how this web of relationships might be described in abstract 
form. Rather, he intends organization to denote the relations actually in- 
stantiated by the autopoietic unity ’s circular processes. Structure, by con- 
trast, is the particular instantiation that a composite unity' enacts at a 
particular moment. For example, when a female human is born, she has 
one kind of structure; when she enters puberty, she has another; if she con- 
tracts a disease, she has still another. But throughout her lifetime, her orga- 
nization remains the same: that which is characteristic of a living human. 
Only when death occurs does her organization change. According to 
Maturana, this ability of living organisms to conserve their autopoietic or- 
ganization is the necessary' and sufficient condition for them to count as liv- 
ing systems. All living systems are autopoietic, and all physical systems, if 
autopoietic, can be said to be living (AC, p. 82). Thus life and autopoiesis 
are coextensive with one another. Here’s how that proposition sounds in 
Maturana’s terminology. “The living organization is a circular organization 
which secures the production or maintenance of the components that 
specify it in such a manner that the product of their functioning is the very 
same organization that produces them” (AC, p. 48). 

To account for a systems embeddedness in an environment, Maturana 
uses the concept of structural coupling. All living organisms must be struc- 
turally coupled to their environments to continue living; humans, for ex- 
ample, have to breathe air, drink water, eat food (AC, pp. x-xi). In addition, 
systems may be structurally coupled to each other. For example, a cell 
within my body may be considered as a system in itself, but it relies for its 
continued existence on its structural coupling to my body as a whole. Here 
again the role of the observer becomes important, for Maturana is careful 
to distinguish between the triggering effect that an event in the medium 
has on a system structurally coupled with it and the causal relationship that 
observers construct in their mind when they perceive the system interact- 

The Second Wave of Cybernetics / 139 

ing with the environment. When my bird dog sees a pigeon, I may think, 
“Oh, he’s pointing because he sees the bird.” But in Maturana’s terms, this 
is an inference I draw from my position in the “descriptive domain” of a hu- 
man observer (AC, p. 121). From the viewpoint of the autopoietic pro- 
cesses, there is only the circular interplay of the processes as they continue 
to realize their autopoiesis, always operating in the present moment and al- 
ways producing the organization that also produces them. Thus, time and 
causality are not intrinsic to the processes themselves but are concepts in- 
ferred by an observer. “The present is the time interval necessary for an in- 
teraction to take place,” Maturana and Varela wrote. “Past, future and time 
exist only for the observer” (AC, p. 18). 

Information, coding, and teleology are likewise inferences drawn by an 
observer rather than qualities intrinsic to autopoietic processes. In the au- 
topoietic account, there are no messages circulating in feedback loops, nor 
are there even any genetic codes. These are abstractions invented by the 
observer to explain what is seen; they exist in the observer’s “domain of in- 
teractions” rather than in autopoiesis itself. “The genetic and nervous sys- 
tem are said to code information about the environment and to represent it 
in their functional organization. This is untenable,” Maturana and Varela 
noted. “The genetic and nervous systems code processes that specify series 
of transformations from initial states, which can be decoded only through 
their actual implementation, not descriptions that the observer makes of an 
environment which lies exclusively in his cognitive domain” (AC, p. 53). 
Similarly, “the notion of information refers to the observer’s degree of 
uncertainty in his behavior within a domain of alternatives defined by him, 
hence the notion of information only applies within his cognitive domain” 
(AC, p. 54). The same applies to teleology. “A living system is not a goal- 
directed system; it is, like the nervous system, a stable state-determined 
and strictly deterministic system closed on itself and modulated by interac- 
tions not specified by its conduct. These modulations, however, are appar- 
ent as modulations only for the observer who beholds the organism or the 
nervous system externally, from his own conceptual (descriptive) perspec- 
tive, as lying in an environment and as elements in his domain of interac- 
tions” (AC, p. 50). 

One implication of letting go of causality is that systems always behave as 
they should, which is to say, they always operate in accord with their struc- 
tures, whatever those may he. In Maturanas world, my car always works, 
whether it starts or not, because it operates only and always in accord with 
its structure at the moment. It is I, as an observer, who decides that my car 
is not working because it will not start. Such “punctuations,” as Maturana 

140 / Chapter Six 

and Varela call them, belong to the “domain of the observer” (AC, 
pp. 55-56 ) . Because they are extrinsic to the autopoietic processes, they are 
also extrinsic to the biological description that Maturana aims to give of 
life and cognition. In an important essay entitled “Biology of Language,” 
Maturana remarks that the “operation of a structure-determined system is 
necessarily perfect: that is, it follows a course determined only by neigh- 
borhood relations in its structure and by nothing else. It is only in a referen- 
tial domain, such as the domain of behavior, that an observer can claim that 
an error has occurred when his or her expectations are not fulfilled.” 1 7 
To assess the changes that the autopoietic view entails, let us turn now to 
compare its account of living systems with that given by first-wave cyber- 
netics. A convenient focal point for the comparison of the two theories is 
liberal humanism, where their implications for the construction of subjec- 
tivity will become apparent. Having traced these implications, we will then 
consider the impact of second-wave cybernetics on the entwined stories we 
have been following: the reification of information, the construction of the 
cyborg, and the transformation of the human into the posthuman. 

Reconfiguring the Liberal Humanist Subject 

As we saw in chapter 4, Norbert Wiener had a complex relation to the lib- 
eral humanist subject. Father of a theory that put humans and machines 
into the same category, he was nevertheless committed to creating a cyber- 
netics that would preserve autonomy and individuality. His nightmare was 
the human reduced to a cog in a rigid machine, losing the flexibility and au- 
tonomous functioning that Wiener regarded as the birthright of a cyber- 
netic organism. Echoes of this cybernetic tradition linger in Maturana’s 
description of composite unities as “autopoietic machines” (AC, p. 82). 
Fully aware of the implications of calling autopoietic systems “machines,” 
Maturana makes clear that there is nothing in his theory to prohibit 
artificial systems from becoming autopoietic unities, “If living systems 
we re machines, they could be made by man,” he and Varela point out (AC, 
p. 83) . They pooh-pooh the idea that life cannot or should not be created by 
humans. “There seems to be an intimate fear that the awe with respect to 
life and the living would disappear if a living system could be not only re- 
produced, but designed by man. This is nonsense. The beauty of life is 
not a gift of its inaccessibility to our understanding” (AC, p. 83). When 
Maturana objects to first-wave projects that attributed biological proper- 
ties to machines, his criticism addresses how life is defined, not the idea that 
machines can be alive. For example, he criticizes John von Neumann’s pro- 

The Second Wave of Cybernetics / /</ 

posal to create a self-reproducing machine by arguing that von Neumann 
modeled descriptions that biologists had made rather than autopoietic pro- 
cesses in themselves. Von Neumann modeled inferences about “what ap- 
peared to take place in the cell in terms of information content, program 
and coding. By modeling the processes expressed in these descriptions he 
produced a machine that could make another machine but he did not 
model the phenomena of cellular reproduction, heredity 7 and genetics as 
they take place in living systems.” 18 

This critique points to an important change between Maturana’s posi- 
tion and that announced by Wiener and his coauthors in their cybernetic 
manifesto. Whereas the latter argued that it is the system s behavior that 
counts, Maturana argues that it is the autopoietic processes generating be- 
havior that count. As we have seen, first-wave researchers concentrated on 
building artifacts that would behave as cybernetic mechanisms: John von 
Neumann’s self-reproducing machines; Claude Shannon’s electronic rat; 
Ross Ashby’s homeostat. By contrast, Maturana and others in the second 
wave look to systems instantiating processes that count as autopoietic. The 
homeostat might behave cybemetically, for example, but it does not count 
as an autopoietic machine because it does not produce the components 
that produce its organization. Perhaps because of this emphasis on process, 
autopoietic theory has proven readily adaptable to the analysis of social sys- 
tems. In autopoietic theory 7 , the machine of interest is much more likely to 
be the state than Robocop or Terminator. 19 

In first-wave cybernetics, questions of boundary formation were crucial 
to its constructions of subjectivity. Boundary 7 questions are also important 
in autopoietic theory 7 . Wiener’s anxieties recirculate in discussions about 
what happens when one autopoietic unity is encapsulated within the 
boundaries of a larger autopoietic unity, for example when a cell functions 
as part of a larger machine. Can the cell continue to function as an au- 
tonomous entity 7 , or must its functioning be subordinated to the larger 
unity? To distinguish these two cases, Maturana introduces the term al- 
lopoietic. Whereas autopoietic unities have as their only 7 goal the continu- 
ing production of their autopoiesis, allopoietie unities have as their goal 
something other than producing their organization. When I drive my car, 
its functioning is subordinated to the goals I set for it. Instead of the pistons 
using their energy to repair themselves, for example, they use their energy 
to turn the drive shaft so that I can get to the store. I function autopoieti- 
cally, but the car functions allopoietieally. 

We saw in chapter 4 that cybernetic boundary questions often involve 
deep ethical and psychological issues, such as those that troubled Wiener 

t 4 2 / Chapter Six 

when he envisioned the dissolution of the autonomous liberal subject. In 
autopoietie theory, one of the principal effects of autopoiesis is to secure 
for a living system the crucial qualities of autonomy and individuality. Con- 
sequently, boundary issues are often played out in discussions of how 
much autonomy autopoietie systems will retain for themselves and how 
much autonomy they will demand from the systems with which they are 
structurally coupled. The distinction between allopoietic and autopoietie 
gives Maturana a way to talk about power struggles within society. In au- 
topoietic theory, the idea corresponding to Wiener’s horror at a man being 
forced to act as a cog in a machine is a system that is capable of autopoiesis 
being forced instead to function allopoietically, especially for humans. 
Maturana’s ideal is a human society in which one would “see all human be- 
ings as equivalent to oneself, and to love them . . . without demanding 
from them a larger surrender of individuality and autonomy than the mea- 
sure that one is willing to accept for oneself while integrating it as an ob- 
server” (AC, p. xxix). Such a society, he adds, “is in its essence an anarchist 
society, a society made for and by observers that would not surrender their 
condition of observers as their only claim to social freedom and mutual re- 
spect” (AC, p. xxx). In such rhetoric, we can easily hear a reinscription of 
liberal humanist values, even though the epistemology that Maturana ad- 
vocates is very different from that which gave rise to the Enlightenment 

Yet it would be a mistake to think that Maturana’s radicalism can be so 
easily recuperated back into liberal subjectivity. The split between his posi- 
tion and liberal philosophy becomes obvious when questions of objectivity 
arise. Consider, for example, his insistence that ethics cannot be separated 
from scientific inquiry. Instead of accepting the proposition that the scien- 
tist simply reports what he or she sees and in this sense remains aloof from 
ethical considerations, Maturana envisions autopoietie theory as a way to 
reconnect ethics and science. Emphasizing that autonomy always takes 
place in the context of structural coupling, autopoiesis rejects the objec- 
tivism that drives a wedge between the scientist-observer and the world be- 
ing observed. For Maturana, observation does not mean that the observer 
remains separate from what is being observed; on the contrary, the ob- 
server can observe only because the observer is structurally coupled to the 
phenomenon she sees. Expanded to social ethics, this implies “in man as a 
social being . . . all actions, however individual as expressions of prefer- 
ences or rejections, constitutively affect the lives of other human beings 
and, hence, have ethical significance.” Structural coupling requires that 
human beings “as components of a society, necessarily realize their individ- 

The Second Wave of Cybernetics / 143 

ual worlds and contribute to the determination of the individual worlds of 
others” (AC, p, xxvi). 

Although Maturana thus follows in the liberal tradition of cyberneti- 
cians like Wiener in placing a high value on the autonomous individual, the 
meaning of autonomy has undergone significant change. Autonomy as 
Maturana envisions it is not consistent with laissez-faire capitalism; it is not 
consistent with the idea that each person is out for himself and devil take 
the hindmost; and it is not consistent with the ethical position that a scien- 
tist could undertake a research program without being concerned about 
how the results of the research would be used. In these respects, the indi- 
vidualism and autonomy that Maturana champions challenge the premises 
embodied in liberal subjectivity' at least as much as they reinscribe those 

To explore further how liberal subjectivity is both contested and rein- 
scribed in autopoietic theory, let us turn now to Maturana’s account of the 
observer. Nowhere does Maturana depart more clearly from first-wave 
philosophies than in his insistence that the observer must be taken into ac- 
count. “The observer is a living system and any understanding of cognition 
as a biological phenomenon must account forthe observer and his role in it” 
(AC, p. 48). The act of observation necessarily entails reflexivity, for one of 
the systems that an observer can describe is the observer as an autopoietic 
system. But reflexivity as Maturana envisions it is very different from the 
psychoanalytic reflexivity' that Lawrence Kubie introduced into the Maty 
Conferences (see chapter 3). In contrast to Kubie’s emphasis on uncon- 
scious symbolism, Maturana’s observer does not have psychological depth 
or specificity'. Rather, Maturana’s observer is more like the observer that 
Albert Einstein posits in the special theory of relativity. The one who sees is 
always called simply “the observer,” without further specification , implying 
that any individual of that species occupying that position would see more 
or less the same thing. Although the observer’s perceptions construct real- 
ity' rather than passively perceive it, for Maturana this construction de- 
pends on positionality rather than personality. In autopoietic theory 7 , the 
opposite of objectivism is not subjectivism but relativism. 

If the interplay between conscious and unconscious processes is not im- 
portant lor Maturana, how 7 is the observer produced? The observer begins 
as an autopoietic unity, as all living systems are said to be. As a particular 
kind of autopoietic unity capable of becoming an observer, the observer- 
system can generate representations of its own interactions. When the 
system recursively interacts with these representations, it becomes an ob- 
server. The system can then recursively generate representations of these 

14 4 / Chapter Six 

representations and interact with them, as when an observer thinks, “I am 
an observing system observing itself observing.” Each twist of this reflexive 
spiral adds additional complexity, enlarging the domain of interactions that 
specify the world for that autopoietie unity. Maturana and Varela summa- 
rize the situation thus in Autopoiesis and Cognition: “We become ob- 
servers through recursively generating representations of our interactions, 
and by interacting with several representations simultaneously we gener- 
ate relations with the representations of which we can then interact and re- 
peat this process recursively, thus remaining in a domain of interactions 
always larger than that of the representation” (AC, p. 14). Reflexivity is thus 
fundamental to Maturana s account not only because the autopoietie oper- 
ations of a unity specify for it a world but also because the system s reflexive 
doubling back on its own representations generates the human subject as 
an observer. 

What about consciousness? Maturana seldom uses this word, preferring 
to talk instead about “thinking” and “self-consciousness.” Thinking occurs 
in a state-determined nervous system when neurophysiological processes 
can interact “with some of its own internal states as if these were indepen- 
dent entities.” This recursive circling “corresponds to what we call think- 
ing” (AC, p. 29). To get from “thinking” to “self-consciousness” requires 
language, according to Maturana. In the same way that perception does not 
consist of information from the environment passing into the organism, so 
language does not consist of someone giving information to someone else. 
Rather, when an observer uses language, this acts as a trigger for the ob- 
servers interlocutor, allowing the interlocutor to establish an orientation 
within his or her domain of interactions similar to the orientation of the 
speaker. Only when two entities have largely overlapping domains — for ex- 
ample, when they are both humans sharing similar cultures and beliefs — is 
it possible for them to achieve the illusion that communication between 
them has occurred. 

From this description, it is apparent that Maturana explains language by 
simply extending to the linguistic realm the same ideas and terminology he 
uses to explain perception — an explanation that, in my view', fails to account 
for some of the distinctive features of language. Shortly we will have an op- 
portunity' to look critically at this view of language. For the moment, it per- 
mits us to understand Maturanas view of self-consciousness. Self- 
consciousness arises when the observer “through orienting [linguistic] 
behavior can orient himself towards himself, and then generate communica- 
tive descriptions that orient him toward his description of this self-orienta- 
tion.” The observer generates self-consciousness, then, when he endlessly 

The Second Wave of Cybernetics / 145 

describes himself describing himself. “Thus discourse through communica- 
tive description originates the apparent paradox of self-description: self- 
consciousness, a new domain of interactions” (AC, p. 29) . Because Maturana 
understands self-consciousness solely in linguistic terms, seeing it as an 
emergent phenomenon that arises from autopoietic processes when they re- 
cursively interact with themselves, consciousness for him becomes a epiphe- 
nomenon rather than a defining characteristic of the human as an autopoietic 
entity'. The activity of cerebration represents only a fraction of the total au- 
topoietic processes, and self-consciousness represents only a fraction of cer- 
ebration. Thus the theory implicitly assigns to consciousness a much more 
peripheral role than it does to autonomy and individualism. In this respect, 
autopoietic theory points toward the posthuman even as it reinscribes the au- 
tonomy and individuality of the liberal subject. 

The complex relation of autopoietic theory to liberal humanism be- 
comes even more apparent when we ask how the theory attempts to es- 
tablish a foundational ground for itself. As we saw in chapter 1, liberal 
humanism (in C. B. Macpherson s reading of it) grounds itself on the notion 
of possessive individualism, the idea that subjects are individuals first and 
foremost because they own themselves. The equivalent foundational 
premise in autopoietic theory is the idea that living systems are living be- 
cause they instantiate organizational closure . It is precisely this closure that 
guarantees the subject will operate as an autonomous individual. But how 
is it that Maturana (or anyone else) knows that organizational closure ex- 
ists? Is the claim that autopoietic closure is intrinsically a feature of living 
systems, or is it how a human observer perceives living systems, including 
itself? This question lies coiled around the brainstem of autopoietic theory, 
layered into its evolutionary history through its founding distinctions be- 
tween qualities intrinsic to autopoietic processes and qualities attributed to 
them by an observer. If the theory' says that the observer creates the system 
by drawing distinctions, it risks undercutting the ontological primacy of or- 
ganizational closure. If it says that autopoietic processes are an essential 
feature of reality, it risks undercutting its epistemological radicalism. 
F aced with this Scylla and Charybdis, M aturana at first steered toward rel - 
ativism and then, as its dangers loomed closer, changed course and steered 
toward the absolutism of autopoietic processes existing in reality as such. 

So in “Biology of Cognition,” the earlier essay in Autopoiesis and Cogni- 
tion, Maturana often wrote as if it is the observer’s action that distinguishes 
an autopoietic unity from its background or medium. “Although a distinc- 
tion performed by an observer is a cognitive distinction and, strictly, the 
unity' thus specified exists in his cognitive domain as a description, the oh- 

1 46 / Chapter Six 

server in his discourse specifies a metadomain of descriptions from the per- 
spective of which he established a reference that allows him to speak as if a 
unity . . . existed as a separate entity” (AC, p. xxii , emphasis added) . This im- 
plies the autopoietic unity exists as a distinction that is performed by the ob- 
server rather than as an entity that could exist in the absence of an observer. 
However, in “Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living,” the second and 
later essay in Au topoiesis and Cognition, M aturana and Varela wrote as if an 
autopoietic unity has the ability to constitute itself independent of an ob- 
server. Autopoietic machines, through “their interactions and, transforma- 
tions . . . continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes 
( relations) that produced them, ” in the process constituting themselves “as 
a concrete unity in the space in which they (the components ) exist hy speci- 
fying the topological domain of [the autopoietic machine’s] realization of 
such a network” (AC, p. 79). Here the operation of the autopoietic entity it- 
self — rather than a distinction drawn by an observer — creates the space in 
which the entity exists. Even more explicit is the claim that individuality 
comes from the processes themselves rather than from the actions of an ob- 
server. “Autopoietic machines have individuality; that is, by keeping their 
organization as an invariant through its continuous production they ac- 
tively maintain an identity which is independent of their interactions with 
an observer” (AC, p. 80). 

It is not surprising that the issue continues to be debated in autopoietic 
theory, for it admits of no easy solution. In Maturana’s desire to found au- 
topoiesis on something more than an observer’s distinction, we can see him 
trying to pull away from the tar baby of his own reflexive language. Relevant 
for our purposes is not so much the resolution to this dilemma (as if there 
could be a definitive resolution!) or even the demonstration that the the- 
ory’s founding moves make it vulnerable to deconstructive critique. Rather, 
the important point here is that the foundational ground for establishing 
the subject’s autonomy and individuality has shifted from self-possession, 
with all of its implications for the imbrication of the liberal subject with in- 
dustrial capitalism. Instead, these privileged attributes are based on orga- 
nizational closure (the system closes on itself, by itself) or on the reflexivity 
of a system recursively operating on its own representations (the observer’s 
distinctions close the system). Closure and recursivity. then, play the foun- 
dational role in autopoietic theory that self-possession played in classic lib- 
eral dieory. The emphasis on closure is visually apparent in the computer 
simulations, called tessellation automata, that Varela created to illustrate 
autopoietic dynamics. In contrast to the artificial-life programs that will be 
discussed in chapter 9, the point of tessellation simulations is to find out 

The Second Wave of Cybernetics / (47 

how boundaries close on themselves, how they are maintained when inter- 
acting with other tessellation automata, and how and when boundaries 
break down, which in autopoietic theory is equivalent to death. In this de- 
scription we see the affinity of autopoiesis not for industrial capitalism 
(which Maturana frequently excoriates) but for utopian anarchy. Auton- 
omy is important not because it serves as the (paradoxical) foundation for 
market relations but because it establishes a sphere of existence for the in- 
dividual, a location from which the subject can ideally learn to respect the 
boundaries that define other autopoietic entities like itself. This emphasis 
on closure, autonomy, and individuality also changes what count as primary 
concerns. When the existence of the world is tied to an observer, the urgent 
questions revolve around how to maintain boundaries intact and still keep 
connection with a world that robustly continues to exist regardless of what 
we think about it. 

These changes from liberal humanism also bring with them limitations 
that are distinctively different from those of first-wave cybernetics. 
Whereas first-wave philosophies tended to obscure the importance of em- 
bodiment and the observer, autopoietic theory draws its strength precisely 
from its emphasis on these attributes. Its Achilles’ heel, by contrast, is ac- 
counting for living systems’ explosive potential for transformation. The 
very closure that gives autopoietic theory its epistemological muscle also 
limits the theory, so that it has a difficult time accounting for dynamic inter- 
actions that are not circular in their effects. A prime example, in my view, is 
the convoluted and problematic way that Maturana treats language. Con- 
sistent with his emphasis on circularity, he prefers to talk not about lan- 
guage but “languaging,” a process whereby observers, acting solely within 
their own domain of interactions, provide the triggers that help other ob- 
servers similarly orient themselves within their domains. Autopoietic the- 
ory sees this exchange as a coupling between two independent entities, 
each of which is formed only by its own ongoing autopoietic processes. As 
this description shows, the theory is constantly in danger of solipsism, a 
danger it both acknowledges and attempts to avoid by protesting that it is 
not solipsistic. The main reason the theory adduces for not being solipsistic 
is its acknowledgment of “structural coupling,” the phrase used to denote 
an organism s interaction with the environment. Even if we grant that this 
move rescues the theory from solipsism, the theory still seriously under- 
states the transformative effects that language has on human subjects. We 
have only to recall the term that Maturana employs for a language-using 
subject — “the observer” — to see how curiously inert and self-enclosing is 
his view of language. 

i < 8 / Chapter Six 

What drops from view in Maturana’s account is the active nature of lin- 
guistic interactions. Researchers from Jean Piaget on have shown that a 
child’s neural hardware continues to develop afterbirth in conjunction with 
the linguistic and social environment in which the child is embedded. In 
light of this work, it is misleading to talk about the process of active shaping 
through language simply as an entity “orienting” itself with the aid of an en- 
vironmental trigger. To appreciate just how active this process is, we can 
look at instances where it has been short-circuited and the child thus con- 
sequently fails to develop normally. In Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism 
and Theory of Mind, Simon Baron-Cohen argues this is what happens with 
autistic children. 20 Somehow the shaping mechanisms fail to direct neural 
development, and as a result the child is unable to create an internal sce- 
nario that would explain why others act as they do. For such children, 
Baron-Cohen argues, the world of social interactions is chaotic and unpre- 
dictable because they suffer from “mindblindness,” an inability to imagine 
for others the emotions and feelings they themselves have. Autopoietic 
theory, in its zeal to construct an autonomous sphere of action for self- 
enclosing entities, formulates a description that ironically describes autis- 
tic individuals more accurately than it does normally responsive people. 
For the autistic person, the environment is indeed merely a trigger for pro- 
cesses that close on themselves and leave the world outside. 

In the next section, we will turn to a discussion of how autopoietic theory 
treats evolution. Like language, evolution represents another area where 
Maturana’s version of autopoietic theory fails to come to terms with the dy- 
namic, transformative nature of the interactions between living systems 
and their environments. F rom there we will explore the split that develops 
between Maturana and Varela. While Maturana continued to replicate his 
original formulation of the theory, Varela and others became increasingly 
interested in changing the theory' so that it could better account for dy- 
namic interactions. Keeping many of the central insights of autopoietic 
theory, Varela added new material and reworked some assumptions in the 
seriated pattern of innovation and replication we have seen at work in other 
sites. One effect of these changes was to allow elements of autopoietic the- 
ory to be integrated into contemporary cognitive science and especially 
artificial life, which will be the focus of my discussion of third-wave cyber- 
netics in chapter 9. 

At this point, a summary maybe useful of how autopoietic theory con- 
tributes to our evolving stories of ( 1 ) the reification of information, (2) the 
construction ol the cyborg, and (3) the transformation of the human into 
the posthuman. First, whereas first-wave cybernetics played a large role 

The Second Wave of Cybernetics / 149 

in divesting information of its body, autopoietie theory draws attention to 
the fact that “information,” so defined, is an abstraction that has no basis 
in the physically embodied processes constituting all living entities. Au- 
topoiesis thus swerves from the trajectory traced in chapters 3 and 4 with 
regard to information, insisting that information without a body does not 
exist other than as an inference drawn by an observer. Second, whereas 
first-wave cybernetics envisioned the cyborg mostly as an amalgam be- 
tween the organic and the mechanical, autopoietie theoiy uses its ex- 
panded definition of life to speculate on whether social systems are alive. 
The paradigmatic cyborg for autopoiesis is the state, not the kind of me- 
chanical human imagined by Bernard Wolfe or Philip K. Dick. Third, au- 
topoietic theory 1 preserves the autonomy and individuality characteristic 
of liberal humanism, but it sees thinking as a secondary effect that arises 
when an autopoietie entity interacts with its own representations. Self- 
consciousness, a subset of thinking, is relegated to a purely linguistic 
effect. The grounding assumptions for individuality shift from self-pos- 
session to organizational closure and the reflexivity of a system recur- 
sively operating on its own representations. 

A status report, then: information s body is still contested, the empire of 
the cyborg is still expanding, and the liberal subject, although more than 
ever an autonomous individual, is literally losing its mind as the seat of 

Autopoiesis and Evolution 

It is no accident that evolution is a sore spot for autopoietie theory, for the 
theory' was designed to correct what Maturana and Varela saw as an 
overemphasis on evolution and reproduction as the defining characteris- 
tics of life. Over and over, they argue that evolution and reproduction are 
logically' and practically subordinate to autopoiesis. “Reproduction and 
evolution are not essential for living organisms,” they assert in Autopoiesis 
and Cognition (AC, p. 11). They are even more opposed to defining living 
organisms in terms of genetic code. As Varela made clear in a retrospective 
assessment, he and Maturana were consciously aware of wanting to pro- 
vide an alternative account oflife, an account that would not depend in any 
im portant way on the idea of a genetic code . “The notion of autopoiesis was 
proposed . . . with the intention of redressing what seemed to us to be a fun- 
damental imbalance in the understanding of living organization.” In cor- 
recting this imbalance, they had two interrelated goals. Along with creating 
a theory of the living that would debunk the current emphasis on DNA as 

150 / Chapter Six 

the “master molecule” oflife, they also wanted to insist on the holistic na- 
ture of living systems. 21 

Varela is willing to admit that perhaps they erred on the side of overem- 
phasizing autopoiesis at the expense of genetics . By contrast, Maturana be- 
came if anything more confirmed in his opposition as time went on. Many 
critics, including Richard Lewontin, Evelyn Fox Keller, Lily Kay, Richard 
Doyle, and others, have commented on the distortions created in modem 
biolog}' by the present overemphasis on DNA. 22 But few go as far as 
Maturana. In the 1980 article “Autopoiesis: Reproduction, Heredity, and 
Evolution,” a recapitulation of autopoietic theory, he wrote, “I claim that 
nucleic acids do not determine hereditary and genetic phenomena in living 
systems, and that they are involved in them, like all other cellular compo- 
nents, according to the particular manner in which they integrate the struc- 
ture of the living cell and participate in the realization of its autopoiesis.” 23 
Let us grant that modern biolog}’ overemphasizes the role of DNA and that 
DNA is, as Maturana points out in this passage, only one of many cellular 
components involved in reproduction. Does he nevertheless go too far in 
the other direction by insisting that everything be subordinated to au- 

The problems created by subordinating everything to autopoiesis can be 
seen in The Tree of Knowledge, an account of autopoiesis written for a gen- 
eral audience. 24 As the opening diagram indicates, Maturana and Varela 
envision each chapter leading into the next, with the final one coming back 
to the beginning, so that the form of the book recapitulates the circularity of 
autopoietic theory. “We shall follow a rigorous conceptual itinerary’,” they 
announce in the introduction, “wherein every' concept builds on preceding 
ones, until the whole is an indissociable network” (p. 9). In Autopoiesis and 
Cognition, Maturana commented that he and Varela were unable to agree 
on howto contextualize the theory, so he wrote the introduction by himself. 
Now, seven years later, Varela is less his student and more an accomplished 
figure in his own right. This is the last work the two men will coauthor to- 
gether; Varela has already begun to head in a different direction. The di- 
vergences in their viewpoints are accommodated through a clever visual 
device. Certain key ideas are separated from the text and put into boxes. 
Each box has a cartoon figure representing the speaker. Maturana’s figure 
wears heavy glasses and is noticeably older than Varelas, so it is easy to iden- 
tify which is which. Sometimes Maturana’s figure authorizes the boxed 
comments, sometimes Varelas, and sometimes both together. Even with- 
out the boxes, it is not difficult to discern that Varelas voice is stronger in 
The Tree of Knowledge than in Autopoiesis and Cognition. 

The Second Wave of Cybernetics / 151 

I take Varela’s Buddhist orientation to be the inspiration behind what 
the authors announce as a central idea, “all doing is knowing and all know- 
ing is doing” (p. 27) . They illustrate the concept by constructing the book as 
a circle, starting their discussion with unicellular organisms (first-order sys- 
tems), progressing to multicellular organisms with nervous systems (sec- 
ond-order systems), and finally coming to cognitively aware humans who 
interact through language (third-order systems). Pointing out that humans 
in turn are composed of cells, they close the circle by nesting first- and 
second-order systems within third-order systems, thus joining the doing of 
autopoiesis with the knowing of cognitively aware creatures. Autopoiesis is 
the governing idea connecting systems at all levels, from the single cell to 
the most complex thinking being. “What defines [living systems] is their au- 
topoietic organization, and it is in this autopoietic organization that they be- 
come real and specify themselves at the same time” (p. 48). Traversing this 
path, the “doing” of the reader — the linear turning of pages during the 
reading — is to become a kind of “knowing’ as the reader experiences the 
organization characteristic of autopoiesis through a textual structure that 
circles back on itself. 

The problem comes when the authors try to articulate this circular 
structure together with evolutionary 7 lineages. In evolution, lineage carries 
the sense both of continuity (traced far enough back, all life originates in 
single-cell organisms) and of qualitative change (different lines branch off 
from one another and follow separate evolutionary pathways). Whereas in 
autopoiesis the emphasis falls on circular interactions, in evolution lines 
proliferate into more lines as speciation takes place through such mecha- 
nisms as genetic diversity and differential rates of reproductive success. 
The tension between evolutionary 7 lines of descent and autopoietic circu- 
larity 7 becomes apparent in the authors’ claim that autopoiesis is conserved 
at even 7 point as organisms evolve. To describe the changes taking place, 
the authors use the term “natural drift.” There seems to be a natural drift in 
“natural drift,” however, and in later passages “natural drift” becomes 
“structural drift.” If structure changes, what does it mean to say that au- 
topoiesis is conserved? Here they fall back on the structure/organization 
distinction that they 7 had previously used in Autopoiesis and Cognition, 
“Organization denotes those relations that must exist among the compo- 
nents of a system for it to be a member of a specific class . Structure denotes 
the components and relations that actually constitute a particular unity and 
make its organization real” (p. 47). Interestingly, they use a mechanical 
rather than a biological analogy to illustrate the distinction. A toilet s parts 
can be made of wood or plastic; these different materials correspond to dif- 

1 5 2 / Chapter Six 

ferences in structure. Regardless of the material used, however, the toilet 
will still be a toilet if it has a toilet’s organization. The analogy is strangely in- 
appropriate for biology. All life is based on the same four nucleotides; 
hence for living organisms, it is not the material that changes but the way 
the material is organized. 

What does it mean, then, to say that autopoiesis is conserved? According 
to the authors, it means that organization is conserved. And what is organi- 
zation? Organization is “those relations that must exist among the compo- 
nents of a system for it to be a member of a specific class” (p. 47). These 
definitions force one to choose between two horns of a dilemma. Consider 
the case of an amoeba and a human. Either an amoeba and a human have 
the same organization, which would make them members of the same class, 
in which case evolutionary lineages disappear because all living systems 
have the same organization; or else an amoeba and a human have different 
organizations, in which case organization — and hence autopoiesis — must 
not have been conserved somewhere (or in many places) along the line. 
The dilemma reveals the tension between the conservative circularity of 
autopoiesis and the linear thrust of evolution. Either organization is con- 
served and evolutionary change is effaced, or organization changes and au- 
topoiesis is effaced. 

The strain of trying to articulate autopoiesis with evolution is perhaps 
most apparent in what is not said. Molecular biology is scarcely mentioned 
and then only in contexts that underplay its importance — a choice consis- 
tent with Maturana s claim that heredity does not depend on nucleic acids. 
There is an additional problem in bringing up molecular biology, for any 
discussion of DNA coding would immediately reveal that the distinction 
between structure and organization cannot be absolute — and if this dis- 
tinction goes, autopoiesis is no longer conserved in evolutionary processes. 
For if organization is construed to mean the biological classes character- 
ized as species, then it is apparent that organization changes as speciation 
takes place. If organization means something other than species, then or- 
ganization ceases to distinguish between different kinds of species and sim- 
ply becomes the property of any living system. Conserving organization 
means conserving life, a fact that may be adequate for autopoiesis to qual- 
ify as a property of living systems but does nothing to articulate autopoiesis 
with evolutionary change. 

The essential problem here is not primarily one of definitions, although 
the problem becomes manifest at these sites in the text because definitions 
are used to anchor the argument, which otherwise drifts off into such neb- 
ulous terms as “natural drift.” Rather, the difficulties arise because of Mat- 

The Second Wave of Cybernetics / 1 5 3 

urana’s passionate desire to have something conserved in the midst of con- 
tinuous change. Leaving aside the problems with his explanation of struc- 
ture and organization, that something is basically the integrity of a 
self-contained, self-perpetuating system that is operationally closed to its 
environment. In Maturanas metaphysics, the system closes on itself and 
leaves historical contingency on the outside. Even when he is concerned 
with the linear branching structures of evolution, he turns this linearity into 
a circle and tries to invest it with a sense of inevitability. Seen as a textual 
technology, The Tree of Kno wledge is an engine of knowledge production 
that vaporizes contingency by continuously circulating it within the space 
of its interlocking assumptions. 2 '’ 

Nowhere is the divergence of Varela and Maturana since 1980 clearer 
than on this point. While Varela moved on to other issues and ways of think- 
ing about them, Maturana continued to occupy essentially the same posi- 
tion and to use the same language as in Autopoiesis and Cognition. Clearly 
Maturana has a more intense and long-lasting commitment to the original 
formulation of autopoiesis than does Varela. Not coincidentally, Maturana 
regards himself as the father of the theory, whereas he sees Varela’s role as 
more tangential. In a 1991 article titled “The Origin of the Theory of Au- 
topoietic Systems,” he claims credit as the creator of the theory and says 
that Varela was very' much a collaborator who appeared on the scene after 
the basic ideas had been formulated. “Strictly, Francisco Varela did not 
contribute to the development of the notion of autopoiesis,” Maturana 
wrote. “This notion was developed between 1960 and 1968. Francisco was 
my student as an undergraduate during the years 1966 and 1967 in Santi- 
ago, then he went to Harvard where he was from 1968 to 1970, when he re- 
turned to Chile to work with me in my laboratory in the F acuity of Sciences 
in Santiago.” Although Varela s Principles of Biological Autonomy clearly 
show's that Varela did most of the actual computer work in creating tessella- 
tion automata, Maturana claims credit for this idea too. He wrote, “During 
the year 1972, 1 proposed one day to make a computer program that would 
generate an autopoietic system in a graphic space as the result of generat- 
ing in that space certain elements like molecules.” 26 In Principles, Varela 
acknowledged that Maturana was among those “who have influenced this 
book so pervasively” that their thought was woven into it throughout, but 
he also wrote in “Describing the Logic of the Living,” his 1981 retrospec- 
tive assessment of autopoiesis, that “the notion of autopoiesis was proposed 
by Humberto Maturana and myself.” 27 This jostling for position, especially 
when a theory has proven to be historically important, is of course common 
in almost every' field, and particularly in scientific communities, where 

1 5 < / Chapter Six 

great emphasis is placed on being the first to discover something. I mention 
it here not in any way to diminish the contributions of either Maturana or 
Varela but to contextualize the fact that Varela moved on to other ways of 
thinking about autopoiesis while Maturana continued to write in much the 
same vein as when he had started. 

The Voice of the Other: Varela and Embodiment 

After The Tree of Knowledge, Varela increasingly moved away from the clo- 
sure that remains a distinctive feature of autopoiesis. The change can be 
seen in “Describing the Logic of the Living: The Adequacy and Limitations 
of the Idea of Autopoiesis,” his contribution to the important 1981 collec- 
tion edited by Milan Zeleny; Autopoiesis: A Theory of Living Organization. 
While stressing that he continues to see autopoiesis as very valuable 
because it “pointed to a neglecting of autonomy as basic to the living indi- 
vidual,” Varela also criticizes autopoiesis for going both too far and not far 
enough (p. 37). It went too far, in his view, in becoming a paradigm not just 
for biological organisms but for social systems as well. Insisting that au- 
topoiesis should not be confused with organizational closure in general, he 
points out that “the definition of autopoiesis has some precision because it 
is based on the idea of production of components, and this notion of pro- 
duction cannot be stretched indefinitely without losing all of its power” 
(pp. 37-38). Although cells and animals clearly do physically produce the 
components that instantiate their organization, social systems do not. De- 
parting from Maturana on this point, Varela would restrict autopoiesis to 
where, in his view, it is most applicable, to the “domain of cells and animals” 
( P . 38). 

Autopoiesis did not go far enough in building a bridge between its ap- 
proach and the first-wave emphasis on information flow, teleology, and be- 
havior. “We did not take our criticism far enough to recover a non-naive and 
useful role of information notions in the descriptions of living phenomena,” 
he wrote. Conceding that information, coding, and messages can be “valid 
explanatory terms,” he suggests that they might serve as complementary 
modes of description for autopoiesis ( p. 39). Although he continues to 
maintain that autopoiesis is logically necessary to a complete explanation, it 
may not be “sufficient to give a satisfactory explanation of living phenomena 
on both logical and cognitive grounds” (p. 44). “There was, evidently, a 
need in [Autopoiesis and Cognition] to overemphasize a neglected side of a 
polarity” (p. 39). To posit an analogous situation in literature, imagine try- 
ing to explain how to read a Shakespearean sonnet by starting out with a de- 

The Second Wave of Cybernetics / / 5 5 

scription of cellular processes. Logically, it is true that the behavior result- 
ing in reading the sonnet has to originate in cellular processes, but one does 
not need to be a literature teacher to see that a “chunked,” higher-level de- 
scription would be much more useful. 

What Varela argues for, finally, is a dual system of explanation. The oper- 
ational explanation would emphasize the physical concreteness of actual 
processes; the symbolic or systems-theoretic explanation would emphasize 
more abstract ideas that help to construct the system at a higher level of 
generality. Even so, this “duality of explanation” should “remain in full 
view” as an antidote to those in computer science and systems engineering 
who mistake a symbolic description for an operational one, for example by 
considering that “information and information processing are in the same 
categoiy as matter and energy.” In this respect Varela remains fiercely loyal 
to autopoiesis. “To the extent that the engineering field is prescriptive by 
design, this kind of epistemological blunder is still workable. However, it 
becomes unbearable and useless when exported from the domain of pre- 
scription to that of description of natural systems. ... To assume in these 
fields that information is some thing that is transmitted, that symbols are 
things that can be taken at face value, or that purposes and goals are made 
clear by the systems themselves is all, it seems to me, nonsense. . . . Infor- 
mation, sensu strictu , does not exist. Nor do, by the way, the laws of nature” 
(p- 45). 

In more recent work, Varela and his coauthors provide a positive di- 
mension to this critique of disembodied information. They explore the con- 
structive role of embodiment in ways that go importantly beyond 
autopoiesis. Although autopoietic theoryimplicitlyprivileges embodiment 
in its emphasis on actual biological processes, it has little to say about em- 
bodied action as a dynamic force in an organism s development. It is pre- 
cisely this point that is richly elaborated by Varela and his coauthors in their 
concept of “enaction.” 28 Enaction sees the active engagement of an organ- 
ism with the environment as the cornerstone of the organism’s develop- 
ment. The difference in emphasis between enaction and autopoiesis can be 
seen in how the two theories understand perception. Autopoietic theory 
sees perception as the system s response to a triggering event in the sur- 
rounding medium. Enaction, by contrast, emphasizes that perception is 
constituted through perceptually guided actions, so that movement within 
an environment is crucial to an organism’s development. As Varela further 
explained in “Making It Concrete: Before, During, and After Break- 
downs,” enaction concurs with autopoiesis in insisting that perception 
must not be understood through the viewpoint of a “pre-given, perceiver- 

156 / Chapter Six 

independent world.” Whereas autopoietic theory emphasizes the closure 
of circular processes, however, enaction sees the organism’s active engage- 
ment with its surroundings as more open-ended and transformative. A sim- 
ilar difference informs the views of cognition in the two theories. For 
autopoiesis, cognition emerges from the recursive operation of a system 
representing to itself its own representations. Enaction, by contrast, sees 
cognitive structures emerging from “recurrent sensoiy-motor patterns .” 29 
Hence, in stead of emphasizing the circularity' of autopoietic processes, en- 
action emphasizes the links of the nervous system with the sensory surfaces 
and motor abilities that connect the organism to the environment. 

Embedded in the idea of enaction is also another story about what con- 
sciousness means, a story different from that articulated by autopoietic 
theory. In The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, 
Varela and bis coauthors take the Buddhist-inspired point of view that the 
“self” is a story consciousness tells itself to block out the fear and panic that 
would ensue if human beings realized there is no essential self. Opposed to 
the false unity and self-presence of grasping consciousness is true aware- 
ness, which is based on actualizing within the mind an embodied realiza- 
tion of the person’s ongoing processes. We saw that autopoietic theory 
invokes the “domain of the observer” as away to integrate common-sense 
perceptions with the theory’s epistemological radicalism, a move that 
ended up deconstructing the liberal humanist subject in some respects but 
recuperating it in others. By contrast, in enaction, consciousness is seen as 
a cognitive balloon that must he burst if humans are to recognize the true 
nature of their being. The thrust of The Embodied Mind is to show that cog- 
nitive science has already been headed in this direction and to interpret the 
significance of this trajectory in the framework of Buddhist philosophies of 
emptiness and the not-self. Here the boundaries of the liberal subject are 
not so much penetrated, stretched, or dissolved as they are revealed to have 
been an illusion all along. In contrast to the anxiety and nostalgia that 
Wiener and Maturana expressed when confronted with the loss of the lib- 
eral subject, Varela, speaking in a voice now not conjoined with his teacher 
and mentor, celebrates the moment when the self drops away and aware- 
ness expands into a realization of its true nature. No longer Wiener’s island 
of life in a sea of entropy or Maturana s autonomous circularity, awareness 
realizes itself as a part of a larger whole — unbounded, empty-’, and serene. 

What marks this realization as something other than a mystical vision is 
Varela’s insistence that the most advanced research in Western cognitive 
science points toward the same conclusion. Referencing such works as R. 
Jackendoff’s Consciousness and the Computational Mind and Marvin 

The Second Wave of Cybernetics / 157 

Minsky’s Society of Mind (about which we will hear more in chapter 9), he 
and his coauthors show that contemporary models of cognition implicitly 
deconstruct the notion of a unified self by demonstrating that cognition can 
be modeled through discrete and semiautonomous agents. Each agent 
runs a modular program designed to accomplish a specific activity, operat- 
ing relatively independent of the others. Only when conflicts occur be- 
tween agents does an adjudicating program kick in to resolve the problem. 
In this model, consciousness emerges as an epiphenomenon whose role it 
is to tell a coherent story about what is happening, even though this story 
may have little to do with what is happening processurally. These models 
posit the mind, Varela wrote, “not as a unified, homogenous unity, nor even 
as a collection of entities, but rather as a disunified, heterogeneous , collec- 
tion of processes” (p. 100), 

In “ M aking It Concrete,” Varela expands this line of thought by showing 
how Minsky’s “society" of mind” model can be combined with nonlinear dy- 
namics to give an account of living systems in action. He continues to insist 
on the importance of the concrete and embodied. “The concrete is not a 
step towards anything: it is how we arrive and where we stay.” Reminiscent 
of the autopoietic theory’s claim that processes happen always and only in 
the present, he remarks that “it is in the immediate present that the con- 
crete actually lives” (p. 98). To show how Minsky’s model is incomplete, he 
points out that “it is not a model of neural networks or societies; it is a model 
of the cognitive architecture that abstracts (again! ) from neurological detail 
and hence from the web of the living and of lived experience.” “What is 
missing here,” he continues, “is the detailed link between such agents and 
the incarnated coupling, by sensing and acting, which is essential to living 
cognition” (p. 99). 

The question he poses is how the mind can move smoothly from one 
agent processing its program to another agent running quite another pro- 
gram. To answer this question satisfactorily, he suggests, we need to link 
these abstractions with embodied processes. He proposes a “readiness to 
action” that in effect constitutes a microidentity 7 . As an example, he imag- 
ines a man walking down the street, and Varela sketches the kind of behav- 
ior associated with this microidentity. Suddenly the man realizes he has left 
his billfold behind in the last store he visited. Instantly a different micro- 
identity kicks in, geared toward a search operation rather than a leisurely 
stroll down the street. How does one get from the microidentity of “stroll” 
to the microidentity of “intense search”? The answer, Varela speculates, in- 
volves chaotic, fast dynamics that allows emergent self-organizing struc- 
tures to arise. In linking the dynamics of self-organizing structures with 

158 / Chapter Six 

microidentities, Varela is following a line of thought vigorously pursued by 
Zeleny and others, who want to join autopoietic theory with the dynamics 
of self-organizing systems. 30 The idea is to supplement autopoietic theory 
so that it can also more adequately account for change and transformation 
and also to specify the mechanisms and dynamics through which an au- 
topoietic system progresses from one instant in the present to another. 
These revisions aim to jog autopoietic theory' out of its relentless repetitive 
circularity by envisioning a living organism as a fast, responsive, flexible, 
and self-organizing system capable of constantly reinventing itself, some- 
times in new and surprising ways. In this turn toward the new and unex- 
pected, autopoietic theory begins to look less like the homeostasis of the 
first wave and more like the self-evolving programs that will be discussed in 
chapter 9 as exemplars of third-wave cybernetics. 

As autopoietic theory continues to evolve, what are likely to be the en- 
during contributions of autopoiesis as Maturana originally formulated it? 
In my view, these will certainly include the following: his emphasis on the 
concreteness and specificity of embodied processes; his insistence that the 
observer must be taken into account, with all the implications this has for 
scientific objectivism; his distinction between allopoietic and autopoietic 
systems, and the ethical implications bound up with making this distinc- 
tion; and his insight that, in a literal sense, we make a world for ourselves by 
living it. 

In one of his more radical moments, Maturana used the insights of au- 
topoiesis to push toward a formulation that, taken out of context, sounds 
solipsistic indeed: “We do not see what we do not see, and what we do not 
see does not exist.” 3 1 In context, he is always careful to qualify this apparent 
solipsism by pointing out that a world outside the domain of one observer 
may exist for others, as when I see a large stationary object that a frog can- 
not perceive. In this way, the worlds existence is recuperated in a modified 
sense — not as an objectively existing reality but as a domain that is con- 
stantly enlarging as self-conscious (scientific) observers operate recur- 
sively on their representations to generate new representations and 
realizations. If this isn’t exactly the “scientific quest for new knowledge,” it 
nevertheless allows for a qualified vision of scientific progress. 

But what if “the observer” ceases to be constructed as a generic marker 
and becomes invested with a specific psychology, including highly idiosyn- 
cratic and possibly psychotic tendencies? Will the domains of self- 
conscious observers fail to stabilize external reality’? Will the uncertainties 
then go beyond questions of epistemology and become questions of ontol- 
ogy? Will the observation that “what we do not see does not exist” sink deep 

The Second Wave of Cybernetics / 159 

into the structure of reality, undermining not only our ability to know but 
the ability' of the world to be? To entertain these suppositions is to enter into 
the world as it is constructed in the literary imagination of Philip K. Dick. 
Writing contemporaneously with M aturana but apparently with no knowl- 
edge of autopoietie theory, Dick is obsessed with many of the same issues. 
In turning from Maturana’s radical epistemology to Dick’s radical ontology', 
we will follow our evolving stories of the reification of information, the con- 
struction of the cyborg, and the emergence of the posthuman into a phan- 
tasmagoric territory' that continues to exist only' as long as an observer 
thinks it does. And what observers Dick’s characters turn out to be! 

C h a p t e r Seven 


As much as any literary work in his generation, Philip K. Dick s fictions en- 
act the progressively deeper penetration of cybernetic technologies into 
the fabric of the world. For a public fascinated by the artificial life-forms 
made famous in Blade Runner (adapted from his most famous novel, Do 
Androids Dream of Electric Sheep ?), his work demonstrates how potent 
the android is as an object for cultural appropriation in the late twentieth 
century. Consistently in his fictions, androids are associated with unstable 
boundaries between self and world. The form that these associations take 
maybe idiosyncratic, but the anxieties that his texts express are not. Sub- 
terranean fears about the integrity of the subject under the cybernetic par- 
adigm were already present in the subtext of Norbert Wieners 1948 
Cybernetics, as we saw in chapter 4. When system boundaries are defined 
by information flows and feedback loops rather than epidermal surfaces, 
the subject becomes a system to be assembled and disassembled rather 
than an entity whose organic wholeness can be assumed. 

For Humberto Maturana, the problem of system definition was solved 
by positing a circular dynamic whereby the living continually produces and 
reproduces the relations constituting its organization. In effect, he turned 
first-wave cybernetics inside out. Instead of treating the system as a black 
box and focusing on feedback loops between the system and the envi- 
ronment, he treated the environment as a black box and focused on the 
reflexive processes that enable the system to produce itself as such. He de- 
veloped the political implications of autopoietic theory' by suggesting that 
power struggles often take the form of an autopoietic system forcing an- 
other system to become allopoietic, so that the weaker system is made to 
serve the goals of the stronger rather than pursuing its own systemic unity. 

Dicks relation to the work of Maturana and Francisco Varela is almost 

1 6 o 

Turning Reality Inside Out / 1 6 1 

certainly not a case of direct influence. Rather, both Dick and the creators 
of autopoiesis were responding to the problem of incorporating the ob- 
server into the system and, as a result, were experimenting with more or 
less radical espistemologies. Without using autopoietic terminology (in- 
deed, there is no evidence that he knew of it), Dick explored the political 
dimension of android-human interactions in terms consistent with Matu- 
rana’s analysis. In Do Androids Dream, Roy Baty understands full well that 
androids have been denied the status of the li\ing and consequently forced 
to serve as slaves rather than function as the autopoietic systems they are 
capable of becoming. The struggle to achieve autopoietic status can be un- 
derstood as a boundary dispute in which one tries to claim the privileged 
“outside” position of an entity that defines its own goals while forcing one’s 
opponent to take the “inside” position of an allopoietic component incor- 
porated into a larger system. Working along apparently independent lines 
of thought, Dick understood that how boundaries are constituted would 
be a central issue in deciding what counts as living in the late twentieth 

Especially revealing are the novels he wrote from 1962 to 1966, when he 
popped amphetamines like crazy and channeled the released energy into 
an astonishingly large creative output (eleven novels in one year alone!), in- 
cluding a series of major works that sought to define the human by juxta- 
posing it with artificial life-forms. 1 Drawing on the scientific literature on 
cybernetics, Dick’s narratives extend the scope of inquiry by staging con- 
nections between cybernetics and a wide range of concerns, including a 
devastating critique of capitalism, a view of gender relations that ties to- 
gether females and androids, an idiosyncratic connection between entropy 
and schizophrenic delusion, and a persistent suspicion that the objects sur- 
rounding us — and indeed reality itself — are fakes. 

At the center of this extraordinarily complex traffic between cultural, 
scientific, and psychological implications of cybernetics stands what I will 
call the “schizoid android,” a multiple pun that hints at the splittings, com- 
binations, and recombinations through which Dick’s writing performs 
these complexities. In Dick’s fiction, the schizoid functions as if autistic. 
Typically gendered female, she is often represented as a bright, cold, emo- 
tionally distant woman. She is characterized by a flattening of affect and an 
inability' to feel empathy, incapable of understanding others as people like 
herself. Whether such creatures deserve to be called human or are “things” 
most appropriately classified as androids is a question that resonates 
throughout Dick’s fictions and essays. In one of its guises, then, the schizoid 
android represents the coming together of a person w'ho acts like a machine 

i 6 2 / Chapter Seven 

with a literal interpretation of that person as a machine. In other instances, 
however, the android is placed in opposition to the schizoid. If some hu- 
mans can be as unfeeling as androids, some androids turn out to be more 
feeling than humans, a confusion that gives Do Androids Dream its extra- 
ordinary depth and complexity. The capacity of an android for empathy, 
warmth, and humane judgment throws into ironic relief the schizoid 
woman’s incapacity for feeling. If even an android can weep for others and 
mourn the loss of comrades, how much more unsympathetic are unfeeling 
humans? The android is not so much a fixed symbol, then, as a signifier that 
enacts as well as connotes the schizoid, splitting into the two opposed and 
mutually exclusive subject positions of the human and the not-human. 

Implicated in these boundary disputes between human and android 
are the landscapes of Dick’s mid-sixties novels. Typically these are highly 
commercialized spaces in which the boundaries between autonomous in- 
dividual and technological artifact have become increasingly permeable. 
Circulating through them are not only high-end products such an intelli- 
gent androids but also a more general techno-animation of the landscape: 
artificial insects that buzz around spouting commercials; coffeepots that 
demand coins before they will begin to perk; and homeostatic apartment 
doors that refuse to open for the tenant until fed the appropriate credit. 
The interpellation of the individual into market relations so thoroughly 
defines the characters of these novels that it is impossible to think of the 
characters apart from the economic institutions into which they are incor- 
porated, from small family firms to transnational operations. Moreover, the 
corporation is incorporated in multiple senses, employing people who fre- 
quently owe to the corporation not only their economic and social identities 
but also the very corporeal forms that define them as physical entities, from 
organ implants and hypertrophied brains to completely artificial bodies. 
Given this dynamic, it is no surprise that the struggle for freedom often ex- 
presses itself as an attempt to get “outside” this corporate encapsulation. 
The ultimate horror for the individual is to remain trapped “inside” a world 
constructed by another being for the other’s own profit. 

The figure of the android thus allows Dick to combine a scathing cri- 
tique of the politics of incorporation with the psychological complexities of 
trying to decide who qualifies as an “authentic” human. Gender dynamics 
is central to these complexities, for when the schizoid woman is brought 
into close proximity with a male character, he reacts to the androidism in 
her personality by experiencing a radical instability in the boundaries that 
define him and his world. With the issue of what is “outside” someone else’s 
“inside” already supercharged with psychological and political tensions. 

Turning Reality /ns/de Our / 163 

these enfoldings further implicate capitalism with androidism, the human 
with the not-human, and the technological with the ontological — that is, 
cybernetics with the social, political, economic, and psychological forma- 
tions that define the liberal subject. To unpack these complexities and re- 
late them to the mid-sixties novels, let us turn first to Dicks essays and 
biography, where the genetic elements that make up these recombinant 
fictions can be found. 

The Schizoid Woman and the Dark-Haired Girl 

In “How To Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” a 
speech written in 1978 and first published in 1985, Dick linked the “au- 
thentic human” with the “real,” a construction that also implies its inverse. 
“Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake 
realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into 
forgeries of themselves.” 2 The ontology of the human and the ontology of 
the world mutually construct each other. When one is fake, the other is con- 
taminated by fakery as well; when one is authentic, the authenticity of the 
other is, if not guaranteed, at least held out as a strong possibility'. 

With so much riding on the “authentic” human, the qualities defining it 
take on special significance. Authenticity' does not depend on whether the 
being in question has been manufactured or born, made of flesh and blood 
or of electronic circuits. The issue cannot be decided by physiological cri- 
teria. Here Dick would agree with Maturana and Varela, who argued that 
artificially created systems can certainly qualify as living. Unlike Maturana 
and especially Varela, however, he leaps over the importance of embodi- 
ment. His fiction displays the same orientation, for it shows almost no in- 
terest in how intelligent machines are constructed, dismissing the issue 
wdth a few words of hand-waving “explanations” about homeostatic mech- 
anisms. The important point for Dick is not how intelligent machines are 
built but that they could be build. Descriptions of bodies (except those of 
women, wdiere the bodies serve as sexual markers) also rarely appear in 
Dick’s fiction. The emphasis falls almost entirely on perception and think- 
ing. Without embodiment to stabilize his epistemological skepticism, the 
cracks he opens in the perceiver’s knowledge widen into rifts in the fabric of 
the world. 

The differences between his ontological skepticism and autopoietic sta- 
bility can be seen in how his fictions enact the h urnan, as distinct from how' 
he defines the human in his essays. In a formulation strikingly' reminiscent 
of Maturana and Varela, he suggests that the human is that which can 

164 / Chapter Sever) 

create its own goal. He goes on to develop other characteristics that, for 
him, set the human apart from the android: being unique, acting unpre- 
dictably, experiencing emotions, feeling vital and alive. The list reads like a 
compendium of qualities that the liberal humanist subject is supposed to 
have. Yet every item on the list is brought into question by the humans and 
androids of Dicks fiction. Human characters frequently feel dead inside 
and see the world around them as dead. Many are incapable of love or em- 
pathy for other humans. From the android side, the confusion of bound- 
aries is equally striking. The androids and simulacra of Dicks fiction 
include characters who are empathie, rebellious, determined to define 
their own goals, and as strongly individuated as the humans whose world 
they share. What does this confusion signify? 

Here I want to draw connections between Dicks biography and the fe- 
male characters in his fiction, a topic so obviously important to Dick’s work 
that its absence from much of the criticism on Dick amounts to a scandal . 3 In 
“The Evolution of a Vital Love,” Dick documents his fascination for a certain 
type of woman: slender, lithe, and young (younger and younger as he grew 
older) , with long dark hair. Repeatedly he hooked up with such women in his 
life and wrote about them in his fiction. He calls this type “the dark-haired 
girl .” 4 Although the physical type remained the same, in “The Evolution of a 
Vital Love” he wrote about what he sees as a continuing development in 
these women and his relationships with them . Whereas the first women ( fic- 
tional and actual) are schizoid, cruel, unfeeling, and unempathie — in short, 
androids by his definition — later he meets and has relationships with 
women who, although they match the physical type, are much warmer and 
more supportive of him and his goals. For Dick, the progression of the dark- 
haired girl from schizoid to empathie is vitally important to defining the hu- 
man and, by implication, the real. “To define what is real is to define what is 
human, if you care about humans. If you don’t you are schizoid and like Pris 
[a character in his novel We Can Build You] and the way I see it, an android: 
that is, not human and hence not real .” 5 In Dick’s reading of his life, then, the 
dark-haired girl started out being allied with the android, but as time went 
on she became polarized against the android, a stay against the unreality 
with which the android is persistently linked. 

It goes without saying, I think, that Dick regards himself as human. Why, 
then, does he repeatedly refer to his attraction for the dark-haired girl as a 
programmed “tropism,” a word he picked up from Norbert Wiener’s ac- 
count of cybernetic creations such as the Moth, which had build into it a 
“tropism” for light. If programmed behavior marks the difference between 
the human and the android, Dick’s tropism for dark-haired girls puts him in 

Turning Reality Inside Out / 165 

the paradoxical position of acting most machinelike when he repeatedly 
seeks out the woman who, he says, “evolved" until she represented the 
authentically human. These subterranean connections between the dark- 
haired girl, machine behavior, and the construction ol masculine subjectiv- 
ity 7 are explored repeatedly in the fiction through configurations that link 
androidisrn in an attractive dark-haired woman with a radical confusion ol 
boundaries between “inside” and “outside” for a male subject. The linkage 
also has implications for female subjectivity 7 . Replication, the mark of the 
machine, is injected back into the dark-haired girl even after she has sup- 
posedly evolved beyond androidisrn, because the male subject’s “tropism” 
converts her into one of a series, a succession of brunette women who are at 
once different and the same — hence the multiple ambiguities of the de- 
scriptor that Dick constructs for them: “the dark-haired girl.” The phrase 
points both to their singularity 7 (each takes the definite article) and to their 
identity 7 with one another. Each is unique and uniquely remembered by 
Dick but remembered as one of a repeating series that stretches back to the 
early stages of his erotic life. 

Many of the critics who have written on Dick’s critique of capitalism 
have scorned psychological explanations, as if they were trivial or unrelated 
to Dick’s satiric view of economic exploitation . 6 But in Dick’s fictional 
worlds, psychology interpenetrates social structure. Contradictions in so- 
cial structure manifest themselves as aberrant psychology, and aberrant 
psychology has social consequences. Understanding the relation of Dick’s 
life to his fictional constructions need not reduce his social critique to pri- 
vate neurosis. On the contrary, it illuminates how he was able to fashion a 
synthesis that undermines precisely the distinctions that would keep the 
personal in a sanitized domain separate from the social, political, and eco- 
nomic structures constituting the individual. 

If we look for a psychological explanation for Dick’s tropism, its origins 
are not hard to find. His parents were divorced when he was six, and he was 
raised by his mother, Dorothy Kindred Dick ( from whom he takes his mid- 
dle name ) . Whatever she was in fact, Dick perceived her as an intellectually 
gifted but emotionally cold woman who denied him warmth and affection. 
Yet he was also extremely dependent on her and maintained an emotional 
closeness almost incestuous in its intensity 7 . As his biographer Lawrence 
Sutin skillfully and sensitively shows, the combination of extreme need for 
affection and extreme fear of rejection also marked his adult relationships, 
especially his relationships with women. ' 

His anxiety toward his mother was brought into focus for him through 
his twin sister, Jane, who died at six weeks of age because Dorothy did not 

i 6 6 / Chapter Seven 

have enough milk for both infants and was too ignorant to realize that the 
twins, already underweight at birth, were becoming fatally malnourished. 
“Somehow I got all the milk,” Dick told his friends. 8 The story of Jane’s 
death became a family legend. Dick reported that Dorothy discussed it 
with him on several occasions, trying to explain that she had done the best 
she could under the circumstances. Her explanations ironically had the op- 
posite effect, for they vividly burned Jane’s existence into his consciousness 
and invested her with intense emotional significance. As a young adult, 
Dick developed a phobia about eating and could not consume food in pub- 
lic, as if eating were a deeply shameful act. 9 

Despite Dorothy’s explanations, Dick blamed his mother for Janes 
death, seeing it as evidence of her inability to care physically and emotion- 
ally for her children. The blame was all the more intense because he must 
have felt that on some level he shared it, having taken from Jane the milk 
she needed to survive. He fantasized that if Jane had lived, she would have 
become a lovely dark -haired girl. He came to believe that she was a lesbian, 
a sexual orientation reflected in the character of Alys in Flow My Tears, the 
Policeman Said , 10 And he intuited that in some sense he continued to carry 
this shadowy Other within his body, a figuration that reflected the fact that 
Jane no longer had an autonomous existence apart from his imagination of 
her. Through no fault of her own, she was fated to occupy the subordinate 
“inside” position while he, the surviving twin, had an “outside” subject po- 
sition that made him a recognized person in the world. 1 1 

With Jane as the first dark-haired girl (compounded with Dorothy, from 
whom she could scarcely be separated in Dick’s mind), it is not difficult to 
see why the figure should be invested with so many conflicting emotional 
attributes. Like Dorothy, the dark-haired girls that Dick depicts in his fic- 
tion are intellectually brilliant but emotionally cold, capable of cutting the 
men around them to emotional shreds while feeling almost nothing them- 
selves. In his account of the women in his life, he suggests that he was able 
to break away from this type of woman and find other “dark-haired girls" 
who were sympathetic. These are the figures he intends to rally to his cause 
to help him defeat the android. But his worst nightmare remains that the 
android will turn out to be none other than the dark-haired girl. The enemy 
is the ally, and the ally is the enemy: enemy mine. 1 2 It is no wonder that in 
his essays, the accounts of the human and the android often seem self- 
contradictory. For the complexities this entangled, he needed — and 
used — fiction to articulate them fully. 

Dick’s distinctive gift as a writer was to combine the personal idiosyn- 
crasies of the schizoid woman/dark-haired girl configuration, along with 

Turning Reality Inside Out / 167 

the inside/outside confusions with which it is entangled, with much 
broader social interrogations into the inside/ outside confusions of the mar- 
ket capitalism that incorporates living beings by turning humans into ob- 
jects at the same time that it engineers objects so that they behave like 
humans. To explore further this complex nexus among the personal, the po- 
litical, and the economic, let us turn now to the fiction. 

Capitalism and the Schizoid Android 

Elucidating the connection between Dick’s fiction and capitalism is Carl 
Freedmans fine article arguing that Dick’s fictional techniques reinscribe 
a post-Marxist view of the subject . 13 Freedman points out that the 
schizohrenic subject, as theorized by Lacan, Deleuze, Guattari, and others, 
evolves as an interplay between an alienated “I” and an alienating “not I.” 
Under capitalism, these theorists argue, schizophrenia is 7 iot a psychologi- 
cal aberration but the normal condition of the subject. Freedman further 
argues that paranoia and conspiracy, favorite Dickian themes, are inherent 
to a social structure in which hegemonic corporations act behind the scenes 
to affect outcomes that the populace is led to believe are the result of de- 
mocratic procedures. Acting in secret while maintaining a democratic fa- 
cade, the corporations tend toward conspiracy, and those who suspect this 
and resist are viewed as paranoiac. 

Dicks novel The Simulacra seems tailor-made to illustrate Freedman’s 
point about the synergistic relation between capitalism and paranoid schiz- 
ophrenia. Set in the USEA (United States of Europe and America), The 
Simulacra depicts a capitalist society that includes Germany as one of its 
most powerful states. Although national elections still exist, the president 
has been reduced to a nominal figurehead, “der Alte.” The country appears 
to be run by the first lady, Nicole Thibodeaux, who takes as her husband 
whatever man the electorate chooses for her ever)’ four years. Unbe- 
knownst to the electorate, “der Alte” is a simulacrum. Nicole herself is re- 
vealed to be a look-alike playing Nicole, who died several years earlier and 
has since been played by a succession of actresses. Behind Nicole is the 
shadowy Council, whose orders she follows, but even Nicole has never seen 
the Council. Thus the entire government is a fake, its real machinery hid- 
den behind Nicole s beautiful face. The presidential simulacrum, far from 
being an anomaly, serves as a metaphor for the entire political process. 
Social classes are divided between the Ge (high status) and the Be (low 
status). The signifier generating the classes is the Geheimnis, the secret. 
Those who know the secret — that the government has become, in Dickian 

168 / Chapter Seven 

terms, a giant android rather than a human institution — are the Geheim- 
nistrager, bearers of the secret, in contrast to the Befahaltrager, those who 
merely carry out instructions. Thus economic distinctions merge seam- 
lessly with the kind of social structure that a paranoid schizophrenic might 
imagine when constructing a system that brings everything together into a 
monolithic system of explanation. 

Paranoid schizophrenia is enacted most dramatically through the char- 
acter of Richard Kongrosian, a psionic pianist who plays his instrument 
without touching the keys. Already unstable, Kongrosian is thrown into 
schizophrenia when he learns that “der Alte” is a simulacrum. The news 
shakes his faith in Nicole, who has served as his anchor in reality {a function 
that “the dark-haired girl” frequently plays for Dick’s male characters). He 
suspects that Nicole is contaminated by the android government she serves 
(precisely the fear that haunts Dick’s essays), and this intrusion of an- 
droidism tips his already fragile psyche into psychosis. “Something terri- 
ble’s happening to me,” he warns Nicole. “I no longer can keep myself and 
my environment separate.” As she watches, he makes a vase on the desk sail 
through the air and enter his body, telling her: ‘“I absorbed it. Now it’s me. 
And — ‘ He gestured at the desk. Tin it!”’ The process also works in reverse. 
Where the vase had been, Nicole sees “forming into density and mass and 
colour, a complicated tangle of interwoven organic matter, smooth red 
tubes and what appeared to be portions of an endocrine system. . . .The or- 
gan, whatever it was, regularly pulsed; it was alive and active. . . /I’m turn- 
ing inside out!’ Kongrosian wailed. ‘Pretty soon if this keeps up I’m going to 
have to envelop the entire universe and everything in it, and the only thing 
that’ll be outside me will be my internal organs and then most likely I’ll 
die!”’ 14 

The conjunction in this scene of androidism, schizophrenia, and a pro- 
found confusion of “inside” and “outside” is more than coincidence. Kon- 
grosian enacts a confusion of boundaries not unlike commodity fetishism. 
F reedman recalls for his readers Marx’s view of how commodities become 
fetishized under capitalism. Once objects are imbued with exchange value, 
they seem to absorb into themselves the vitality of the human relations that 
created them as commodities. Freedman reminds us that one definition for 
reification is the projection of social relations onto the relations of objects. 
The incidents that precipitate Kongrosian s turning inside out suggest that 
the specter of the android has somehow caused this bizarre phenomenon. 
In fact, the android performs an extraordinarily complex staging of reifica- 
tion in Dick’s fiction. On the one hand, it is a commodity, an object created 
by humans and sold for money. In this guise it is reified in much the same 

Turning Reality Inside Out / 169 

way that any object capable of being bought and sold is reified, like the ani- 
mals that bestow high status on their human owners in Do Androids Drea m 
or like “der Alte” in The Simulacra , whose sole function as an object is 
to serve as a signifier for the democratic processes that are as fake as 
he/it is. In another sense, however, “der Alte” is an anomaly among Dicks 
androids, for most of them — Rachael Rosen, Abraham Lincoln, Edwin M . 
Stanton — are shown in scenes that make them virtually indistinguishable 
from humans. They think, feel outrage, bond with their fellows. Given their 
abilities, they should be able to participate in the social realm of human re- 
lations, but in such texts as Do Androids Dream, they can do so (legally) 
only as objects. In this view they are not objects improperly treated as if 
they were social beings but are social beings improperly treated as if they 
w'ere objects. For them the arrow of reification points painfully in both di- 

The scene in which Kongrosian turns inside out is revealing in another 
respect as well, for it demonstrates the megalomaniac expansion of self that 
the paranoid schizophrenic experiences in the frenzy of delirium. The 
paranoid feels compelled to interpret all the surrounding mysterious signs 
and order them into a single coherent system. F rom here it is a small step to 
feeling responsible for the signs. If everything that happens is the para- 
noids responsibility, the belief easily follows that the paranoid actually 
caused all these events. When Kongrosian states “I’m going to have to en- 
velop the entire universe and everything in it,” his actions can be under- 
stood as a literalization of this view. Gifted or cursed with telekinesis, he 
causes things to happen in the world by thinking about them. From this he 
moves on to believing that he orders the universe; then he progresses to the 
fantasy that he is the universe. Part of the guerrilla warfare that Dick stages 
on the everyday is to valorize such perceptions by rendering them as events 
that other characters witness and that the narrator reports as “actually” 
happening. In this way, the readers perceptions undergo a transformation 
similar to Kongrosian ’s, for our relationship to the character is turned in- 
side out. Instead of his world existing inside our minds, the textual world is 
rendered so as to make our perceptions work as if they were part of his in- 
ternal world. 

The battle to occupy the “external” position relative to other characters 
is waged over and over in Dicks fiction in different guises. The stakes are 
high, for if the self is unable to expand to megalomaniac proportions, it is 
likely to shrink so that it becomes merely a dot on the horizon, an atom in a 
cold, pitiless, inanimate landscape shaped by the dead forces of cause and 
effect and completely unresponsive to human desire. This is the tomb 

170 / Chapter Seven 

world, the landscape in which entropy rules . F requently the pendulum will 
swing between dangerous hyperinflation and excruciating shrinkage of the 
ego without ever stabilizing at the middle position of everyday reality. 

Scott Durham has perceptively pointed out that this alternation be- 
tween the expanding self and the shrinking self is intimately related to the 
constitution of subjectivity under capitalism. 15 Capitalism encourages the 
inflation of desire, marketing its products by seducing the consumer with 
power fantasies. But when the realization sinks in that this is merely a capi- 
talist ploy, the subject shrinks in inverse proportion to how much it had ear- 
lier inflated. So in Dick’s novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch , 
Chew-Z is marketed by linking it with claims of omnipotence through the 
slogan “god promises eternal life; we can deliver it .” 16 When the 
subject consumes the product (figuratively and also literally by ingesting 
it), he finds that he is catapulted into a world where Palmer Eldritch makes 
all the rules. Rather than taking the product inside him, he has been im- 
prisoned inside the product. F or he soon discovers that no matter what es- 
cape hatch he builds or invents. Palmer Eldritch remains exterior to his 
reality, determining its workings and glinting through the other characters 
as they begin to manifest Eldritch’s telltale stigmata. The eternity delivered 
here is precisely not the apotheosis of the liberal autonomous subject capa- 
ble of free thought and action but is the subject as pawn in a capitalists 
game, imprisoned for eons in a universe that a terrifying and menacing 
alien other has created to increase his profits. 

The boundary' instability that the Kongrosian scene so vividly illustrates 
recurs repeatedly in Dick’s mid-sixties novels. In one version of the drama, 
the [male] subject expands and contracts in an agonized dance between 
megalomania and victimization. This dance is intimately bound up with a 
related oscillation in the attractive female character between the schizoid 
woman and the dark-haired girl. In the promiscuous couplings these vari- 
ous subject positions permit, the android serves as an ambiguous term that 
simultaneously incorporates the liberal subject into the machine and chal- 
lenges its construction in the flesh. To develop further the complex con- 
nections and disjunctions signified by the schizoid android, I turn now to 
pick up again the thread of the schizoid woman/dark-haired girl. 

The Schizoid Woman (De)Constructs Male Subjectivity 

Patricia Warrick has insightfully argued that Dick’s fiction is structured as a 
series of reversals designed to defeat the reader’s expectation that it is pos- 
sible to discover what the situation “really” is. 17 Building on her argument 

Turning Reality Inside Out / 17 / 

and also modifying it, I want to demonstrate that the reversals are not arbi- 
trary but follow an inner logic of their own. I shall take as my tutor text We 
Can Build You, in part because Warrick remarks, in passing, that its two 
themes — the construction of androids and the male character’s fascination 
with the schizoid woman — are not connected with each other, which she 
sees as an aesthetic failing. I will argue that although the themes are not 
well integrated, they are deeply connected through the figure of the 
schizoid android. 

As Dick recognizes in “The Evolution of a Vital Love,” the prototype for 
the schizoid woman is Pris in We Can Build You. Louis Rosen, the little guy 
who serves as protagonist for the novel, finds Pris fascinating but also terri- 
fying. Her most notable attribute is what he calls “emptiness dead center,” 
an inability to feel empathy or indeed almost any emotion . lw Talented, cre- 
ative, and fiercely intelligent, Pris had a nervous breakdown while still in 
high school (as did Dick himself). When she takes up with the rich entre- 
preneur Sam Barrows, deserting the family firm to move in the glittering 
world of the rich and famous, Louis’s attraction to her becomes compulsive. 
The more this dark-haired girl/schizoid woman recedes out of his realm, 
the more he yearns after her, finally becoming so obsessed that getting 
together with her becomes more important to him than anything else, 
including the family firm. “What a woman, what a thing to fall in love with,” 
he thinks to himself, in a conflation that makes clear that Pris, as a schizoid 
woman, has more than a touch of androidism in her. “It was as if Pris, to me, 
were both life itself — and anti-life, the dead, the cruel, the cutting and 
rending, and yet also the spirit of existence itself ” (p. 155). As her new name 
“Pris Womankind” indicates, she is at once uniquely herself and symbolic 
of the role that Dick assigned to the bright, cold, cutting women in his life, 
particularly his mother, Dorothy, and (after they divorced) his fourth wife, 
Nancy. More than a tie to life, Pris is Louis’s anchor to reality, much as 
Nicole was for Kongrosian in The Simulacra. At the same time, Louis expe- 
riences Pris as the “anti-life,” which in later novels takes shape as the tomb 
world. The flips that Warrick notices in Dick’s text have an inner logic that 
make it impossible for the male character to do without the dark-haired 
girl/schizoid woman, even when he sees her as a source of powerful conta- 
mination driving him into psychosis. 

When Louis and Pris rendezvous at a motel, the encounter fizzles be- 
cause neither can abandon their cat-and-mouse games long enough to ex- 
perience physical intimacy. Still obsessed, he falls into a delusional state in 
which he hallucinates that he is making love to her, although he is alone 
with his father and his brother in a bedroom and his “lovemaking” takes 

<72 / Chapter Seven 

place while they look on bemusingly. By the novel’s end, he traces Pris to 
the mental institution where she has been readmitted, and he himself be- 
comes a patient. After months of drug therapy in which he hallucinates that 
they court, marry, and have a child, he finally has a chance to talk with her. 
She tells him she will soon be leaving and suggests how he can present his 
case to be dismissed also. He wins dismissal, only to learn that Pris has de- 
ceived him. “I lied to you, Louis,” she tells him. “I’m not up for release; I’m 
much too sick. I have to stay here a long time more, maybe forever” (p. 252). 
For Louis, sanity means losing her and, with her, the vitality of life, which 
can be seen as a kind of mental illness, but having her means mental illness 
of another kind. 

The ambiguity of Pris s motives in this final scene — does she trick Louis 
because she doesn’t want him around or because she wants him to get on 
with his life? — indicates that even in a female protagonist figured mostly as 
a schizoid woman, flashes of the empathic dark-haired girl still appear. In 
Do Androids Dream, these instabilities in the female subject position are 
exacerbated as the schizoid woman is broken into twin characters, Rachael 
Rosen and Pris Stratton. The two are the same model of android, a Nexus- 
6, so they are physically identical. But they play very different roles in the 
plot. Rachael becomes for Deckard a particularly ambivalent version of the 
dark-haired girl. 19 At his low point she comes to him, and they end up in 
bed in a sexual liaison that Pris and Louis couldn’t manage to bring off. Dur- 
ing this scene and the one following, her characterization oscillates wildly 
between a desirable, empathic partner and a cold, calculating manipulator. 
The scenes are worth looking at in detail for what they reveal about the 
dynamic of the male character who experiences the schizoid woman as a 
splitting between an android (literally so with Rachael) and the dark-haired 

Deckard calls Rachael because she has offered to help him “retire” the 
escaped Nexus-6 androids. When he shows her his hit list, she turns pale 
because one of the androids (“andys”), Pris, is the same model as she 
is. Earlier that day Rick, working with Phil Resch, had helped to kill 
Luba Loft, an escaped android who was also a superb opera singer. After 
Deckard expressed regret at Luba’s death, Resch (depicted as a cold- 
blooded killer who, unlike Deckard, feels no empathy for Luba or any of 
the androids he kills) interprets his regret as sexual desire. Although hu- 
man-android sex is strictly illegal, he confesses that he once fancied a fe- 
male android and advises Deckard that instead of killing the android and 
then wanting her, he should go to bed with her first and kill her afterward. 
Now, in the hotel room with Rachael, it occurs to Deckard that he is inad- 

Turning Reality Inside Out / 173 

vertently about to follow Resell s advice, for he intends to go to bed with 
Rachael and kill Pris afterward. Shaken by the realization, he refuses to 
have sex with Rachael. In a last-ditch attempt to cajole him, she tells him 
she loves him and then, when he still refuses, offers to kill Pris herself. She 
explains, “I can’t stand getting this close and then — ” (p. 170). 

After the sex, Rachael apparently feels free to reveal her motives. She 
tells Deckard that his career as a bounty' hunter i s over because no man who 
has gone to bed with her has found it possible afterward to kill any androids . 
She has had sex with several bounty hunters, she explains placidly, and it has 
worked every time. The one exception is a “very' cynical man, Phil Resch” 
(p. 174). The euphemism that Deckard uses to describe killing androids — 
“retiring” them — ironically returns in a reversal that has a female android 
“retiring” bounty hunters. 20 Rachael’s strategy implies that she feels empa- 
thy for her fellow androids, giving the lie to the government’s position that 
androids feel no loyalty to each other. If she can care for her fellow an- 
droids, we may wonder if she also cares for Deckard, as she claims when she 
tells him that she loves him. 

Enraged by' her revelation that she has “retired” him, Deckard tries to 
kill her and cannot, whereupon she reproaches him for loving the Nubian 
goat he has acquired with his bounty money more than he does her — a re- 
sponse that works on multiple levels. It hints at the ironic fact that humans 
revere animal life but feel free to kill intelligent android life, and it also sug- 
gests that Rachael, although she uses Deckard for her own political pur- 
poses, cares about whether he cares for her. After Deckard succeeds in 
killing the last three andys, he returns home to discover that Rachael has 
pushed the goat off the roof, an act that conflates her jealousy of the goat 
with revenge for Deckard’s killing her f riends. The mixture of human pas- 
sion and cold calculation in Rachael’s responses shows that she combines 
within herself attributes of the dark-haired girl and of the android. The 
closer the relationship gets to intimacy, the wilder the oscillations between 
these subject positions become, in turn inducing alternating moods in 
Deckard: between despair and empowerment, ego shrinkage and inflation. 
It is as if Deckard’s attraction to her were destabilizing reality itself. 

That possibility', latent in Deckard’s relationship with Rachael, becomes 
overt in J. R. Isidore s perceptions. Deckard’s desire for Rachael is formally 
mirrored in the plot by J. R. s desire for her twin, Pris. Rachael’s character, 
split within itself, splits again into Rachael and Pris, a division in which 
Rachael is closer to the dark-haired girl and Pris to the schizoid woman. 
Whereas Rachael’s manipulation of Deckard is relatively subtle, Pris s ma- 
nipulation of J. R. is bald-faced and cold. Although J. R. fantasizes that per- 

/ 7 < / Chapter Seven 

haps they might have a relationship, Pris never indicates any feeling for 
him, and it is clear that sex between them isn’t going to happen. In We Can 
Build You, Louis likens Pris to a spider, seeing her as an alien being who 
goes about her business oblivious of her effects on others. The image re- 
turns in Do Androids Dream in the scene in which Pris and Irmgard Baty, 
holed up in J. R.’s apartment, cut off the legs of a spider, which J. R. has 
found, to see how many legs it can do without and still walk. As a chicken- 
head (this society’s term for someone who is degenerating mentally), J. R. 
lacks Deekard’s analytical skills, and he often expresses his insights visually 
and intuitively, such as when he briefly hallucinates that Roy Baty is made 
of gears and coils rather than flesh and blood. Faced with this desecration 
of Mercer’s decree that all life is sacred, J. R. perceives the force of “kipple” 
(a neologism that Dick uses for the entropic decay that has been nibbling 
away at the apartment building) suddenly becoming an avalanche of de- 
struction. Chairs crumble; the table melts askew; gaping holes appear in 
the walls. From Pris’s exclamations, the reader knows that J. R. has gone 
berserk and is causing the destruction himself. Nowhere, perhaps, is Dick’s 
conflation of cybernetic concerns with idiosyncratic psycho log ) 7 more ap- 
parent than in this scene. The entropic decay that Wiener imagined could 
be forestalled by cybernetics is preternaturally accelerated until it is visibly 
apparent in the landscape, and this visibility also functions as a sign that sys- 
tem boundaries have become radically unstable. The moment is a finely re- 
alized piece of writing that performs cybernetic boundaiy disputes in a 
context that makes clear their relation to a male character’s attachment 
to the female android/schizoid woman. The result is a deep confusion of 
boundaries between inside and outside. 

Confronted with Pris’s torture of the spider and thus implicitly with her 
emotional coldness, J. R. perceives the heat energy rushing from the room, 
as if the room’s physical decay sprang directly from her lack of empathy. As 
this conflation of inside/outside suggests, his perception of the boundaries 
between himself and the outside world has become badly distorted. The 
psychological dynamic is clear from Dick s repeated use of the situation. The 
(male) selfyeams to expand outward in a moment of union, but when the fe- 
male android/schizoid woman rejects him, the result is a devastating insta- 
bility in which it is difficult or impossible for him to establish robust 
boundaries between himself and the world. Louis Rosen, rejected by Pris 
Womankind, projects his fantasies of her into a hallucinatory love partner. J. 
R. Isidore, shocked by Pris Stratton s cruelty to his spider, perceives his own 
rampage as the impersonal force of kipple at work. In Dicks novels, the sud- 
den collapse of an inside/ outside distinction is often a sign that the male sub- 

Turning Reality Inside Out / '75 

ject is plunging into psychosis. One of the sites where this dynamic plays it- 
self out is the tomb world. Let us turn now to a closer examination of this sur- 
realistic landscape to explore its connection with the schizoid android. 

Wasting Time in the Tomb World 

In Do Androids Dream, a compelling “proof” of the official ideology that 
androids occupy a category ontologically distinct from that of humans is the 
fact that androids cannot experience fusion with Mercer, a quasi-religious 
figure who appears when a human grips the handles of the empathy box. 
Androids, incapable of experiencing this fusion, are judged to be lacking in 
empathy, the touchstone of the “authentic” person. Staging a moment in 
human history when androids rival or surpass humans intellectually. Do 
Androids Dream shows the essential quality of “the human” shifting from 
rationality to feeling. Animals, evoking feeling in their owners and capable 
of feeling themselves, occupy the privileged position of fellow creatures 
whose lives, like human lives, are sacred, whereas the rational androids are 
denied the status of the living. The change comes when nonhuman ani- 
mals, rapidly fading into extinction, have ceased to pose any conceivable 
threat to human domination. Since the real threat now comes from the an- 
droids, the shift in definition is hardly a coincidence. To extend the critique, 
Dick emphasizes the capitalist marketing of animals, an industry fueled by 
the religious significance that owning an animal has under M ercerism . Like 
certain forms of Puritanism, Mercerism joins with capitalism to create a 
system in which the financially privileged merge seamlessly with the reli- 
giously sanctified. 

Despite this pointed satire, Dick’s treatment of Mercerism remains 
complexly ambiguous. The text refuses an either/or choice and implies 
that Mercerism is both political hucksterism and a genuinely meaningful 
experience. In an expose by Buster F riendly, a radio talk-show host later re- 
vealed to be an android, Mercer is proved to be a fake, a drunk hired by un- 
known parties to act out a few cheesy scenes of humiliation and atonement 
on cheap sets. Yet Mercer is also an inspiring figure who mysteriously ap- 
pears to Deckard to tell him that killing androids is both wrong and neces- 
sary, just as Mercer acknowledges that he is at once fake and genuine. 

These multiple confusions are reenacted when J. R., already operating 
in the borderland between hallucination and reality, rushes to the empathy- 
box after the tidal wave of kipple engulfs his apartment. As he grabs the 
handles, he plays out the scenario that Mercer endlessly repeats in a land- 
scape hovering ambiguously between the internal and external worlds. 

i 7 6 / Chapter Seven 

Like Sisyphus, Mercer is doomed to climb up a dusty hill, while unseen tor- 
mentors throw rocks at him, only to slide back down when he reaches the 
top. But he does not merely regress to the bottom. He plunges all the way 
down into the tomb world, a world where nothing but him lives, a world 
populated by the decaying skeletons and rotting carcasses of animals. In 
the tomb world, time has either stopped or moves so slowly that its passage 
cannot be perceived. All one can do is wait passively for what seems like 
eons in the utter desolation, surrounded by death and decay, until very 
slowly things begin to come alive again and it is possible to climb out. 

A clue to the psychological significance of the tomb world comes in 
Dick’s analysis of schizophrenia in “Schizophrenia and The Book of 
Changes. ” 21 In high school, Dick experienced an agoraphobia so acute that 
he had to be tutored at home. As a young man, he compulsively engaged in 
various neurotic behaviors, including his eating disorder. He had three ner- 
vous breakdowns and attempted suicide several times. When he talks 
about the experience of mental illness, therefore, we may suppose he 
knows whereof he speaks. Writing at a time when R. D. Laing was calling 
for a reassessment of schizophrenia, Dick echoed Laing in viewing schizo- 
phrenia with sympathy and even admiration . 22 In a letter to Patricia 
Warrick, he wrote that he wanted to draw a “sharp line” between the neu- 
rotic schizoid, whom he saw as an essentially cold person seeking power 
over others, and the psychotic schizophrenic, who is too “nuts” to be much 
of a threat to anyone but himself or herself '. 23 In contrast to his scathing in- 
dictment of the schizoid, who withdraws emotions from the world, Dick 
saw the schizophrenic as someone who suffers because of projecting emo- 
tions too much into the world. 

His sympathy is evident in “The Android and the Human” when he ob- 
serves that for the schizophrenic, time stops because nothing new can hap- 
pen . 24 The ego has become so distended, so inflated, that it blocks out 
everything else. Since the self is perceived as responsible for explaining 
everything and putting it into order, there can be no surprises. The new, the 
inexplicable, the mysterious, and the unexplained do not exist for the para- 
noid schizophrenic. The tomb world is a literary and fictional representa- 
tion of this state seen from the point of view of the person who experiences 
it. The dreariness, the hopelessness, the feeling that time has stopped and 
there is nothing to do but wait, the deadness inside projected onto an exte- 
rior landscape — these are the markers of extreme mental distress as Dick 
describes them. The tomb world appears in several of Dicks fictions from 
the mid-sixties, and it is always associated with a deep confusion of in- 
side/ outside boundaries. 

Turning Reality Inside Out / 1/7 

The inside/outside confusion links the schizophrenic to the android. 
Like the schizophrenic, the android is a hybrid figure — part human, part 
machine — whose very existence calls boundaries into question. Whereas 
the android’s actions are always predictable — the android is characterized 
by predictability “most of all,” Dick wrote in “The Android and the Human” 
(p. 191) — for the paranoid schizophrenic, the world’s actions are always 
predictable. In the first case, the predictability is understood as coming 
from the androids internal programming; in the second case, the pre- 
dictability' is perceived as originating in the external world. This distinction 
is moot in the tomb world, however, for inside and outside merge in its am- 
biguous landscape. Surely it is no accident that Dick’s mid-sixties novels in 
which the tomb world prominently appears also feature android charac- 

The android that Dick writes about in his essays represents the loss of 
free play, creativity, and most of all, vitality — in short, the triumph of ob- 
session over the flexibility and empathy that a writer needs to create the 
new. Yet as we have seen, Dick’s fictional androids are considerably more 
complex than this portrayal. We can understand this contrast through a 
paradox; the simple version of the android represents a loss of vitality that 
would make writing impossible, yet this view of androidism is precisely 
what Dick makes into the occasion for writing. Androidism both annihi- 
lates writing and makes it possible. The paradox is written into Mercerism 
through the ambiguities it generates between self and other. The moment 
a human grasps the empathy box, his consciousness fuses with that of un- 
known and unnamed others. He is both alone and in company, cut off from 
his surroundings and in emotional communication with other human be- 
ings. In short, he partakes of the instabilities that male subjects feel when 
they come into close proximity with female characters who participate in 
the schizoid woman/android/dark-haired girl configuration. He experi- 
ences an ego expansion that, although it can be extremely dangerous if it 
progresses into megalomania, in the empathy box remains relatively con- 
tained and so is relatively benign. 

Even so, the downside is hardly negligible. The empathy box interpo- 
lates the private delusions of the subject into a shared ideology that in- 
scribes his characteristic experiences into scripts invested with religious, 
political, and social significance. As Jill Galvin points out, there are hints 
that the government, faced with a declining population in a world rapidly 
becoming uninhabitable by humans, encourages the use of the empathy- 
box to keep citizens quiescent and tractable. 25 In the empathy box, citizens 
feel empowered, but the endless scenarios they play out make clear that 

1 7 8 / Chapter Seven 

they are in fact powerless, a paradox that is a more insidious version of 
Dick’s empowerment by writing about the hopelessness and androidism of 
the tomb world. Buster Friendly, his ulterior motives notwithstanding, 
makes a good point when he asks his listeners to question “what it is that 
Mercerism does. Well, if we’re to believe its many practitioners, the expe- 
rience fuses . . . men and women throughout the Sol System into a single 
entity. But an entity which is manageable by the so-called telepathic voice 
of ‘Mercer.’ An ambitious politically-minded would-be Hitler could — ,” 26 

Despite the obvious exploitative potential of Mercerism, Dick also in- 
sists that alongside its fakery there exists a possibility for genuine atone- 
ment and redemption, a possibility written into Do Androids Dream when 
Mercer’s intervention saves Deckard’s life. If Mercer is in some sense real 
as well as fake, then the tomb world must also at once be a delusion and a 
necessary purgation. The key to understanding its mysterious double na- 
ture lies in the schizoid woman/dark-haired girl configuration. As we have 
seen, the oscillation between the dark-haired girl and the schizoid woman 
becomes more pronounced the closer the male character draws to her. The 
male character nurses a fierce ambivalence toward her, both desiring inti- 
macy and fearing it. Because of the multiplicity of her nature as Dick con- 
structs it, she is the perfect screen on which to project this ambivalence. On 
the one hand, she represents a rejection all the more inevitable and ab- 
solute because it springs not from deficiencies in the male, which he could 
presumably correct, but from her own inability to relate to anyone. On the 
other hand, she represents all that the male finds desirable and vital, so for 
him to be cut off from her is tantamount to not living. If she rejects him, it 
means he is not really alive and thus is an android. If she accepts him, it 
means he will be tied to her and thus exposed to the coldness he most fears. 
Either way, exposure to her compromises his humanity with a touch of an- 
droidism, a possibility brilliantly realized in Do Androids Dream through 
the intimation that Deckard himself may be an android. The tomb world 
acknowledges this pollution and tries to atone for it. 

Occasionally male characters, who are constantly in danger of being 
sucked into the maelstrom of conflicting impulses that the schizoid android 
evokes, take revenge on the woman who attracts them, presumably with 
authorial sanction. The violence that the narrator (and, behind him, Dick) 
can visit on the schizoid woman is revealed in the scene from The Three 
Stigmata in which Leo Bulero propositions his attractive assistant, Roni 
Fugate, a character who bears more than a passing resemblance to the 
schizoid woman. When she turns him down, Leo spitefully wishes she were 
old, over one hundred years old. Leo has consumed (and been consumed 

Turning Reality Inside Out / 179 

by) Chew-Z and so has never really left the space where Palmer Eldritch 
makes the rules. Too late he remembers that in this delusional world, his 
thoughts are coextensive with the apparently real landscape. He turns 
around to see a “spiderweb, gray fungoid strands wrapped one around an- 
other to form a brittle column that swayed ... he saw the head, sunken at 
the cheeks, with eyes like dead spots of soft, inert white slime that leaked 
out gummy, slow-moving tears.” Aghast, he wishes her alive again. The gray 
mass becomes a puddle that “flowed gradually outward, then shuddered, 
and retracted into itself; in the center the fragments of hard gray matter 
swam together, and cohered into a roughly shaped ball with tangled, mat- 
ted strands of hair floating at its crown. Vague eyesockets, empty, formed; it 
was becoming a skull, but of some life-formation to come: his unconscious 
desire for her to experience evolution in its horrific aspect had conjured this 
monstrosity into being .” 27 

Two lessons emerge from this episode. First is the connection between 
the schizoid woman and the tomb world, here made explicit when the male 
who perceives himself insulted by her takes revenge by making her the vic- 
tim of the tomb world dynamics. Although he: maybe punished by perceiv- 
ing the world as a dust heap, the punishment he visits upon her is the more 
extreme violence of being made to incorporate within her own body the 
preternatually accelerated entropic decay of the tomb world. The second 
lesson is the inescapability of a landscape in which the subject s “inside” has 
merged with the world s “outside.” Time can go forward again into life, but 
it can’t be reversed back to where it was before the psychotic episode hap- 
pened, for Leo or, more drastically, for Roni either. Leo learns that one can 
climb out of the tomb world, as Mercer eventually does, but once one has 
fallen into it, the tomb world itself never goes away. It stays there, waiting, 
until the boundaries separating inside and outside again become so unsta- 
ble that the subject slides down into it once more, as Jack Bohlen does in 
Dick’s novel Martian Time- Slip. 

Given these complexities, how does resolution occur in Dick’s novels? 
How are the endlessly complex splittings and recombinations of the 
schizoid android stabilized enough to achieve closure? To answer this 
question, I turn now to the staging of the schizoid android in his novel Dr. 

Turning Right-Side Out in Dr. Bloodmoney 

In a brilliant article entitled “After Armageddon: Character Systems in Dr. 
Bloodmoney,” Fredric Jameson uses the semiotic square to elucidate the 

i 8 o / Chapter Seven 

relationships between characters in Dr. Bloodmoney , 2H His analysis posits 
a primary axis between “organic” and “mechanical,” where the terms exist 
in an oppositional relation to each other. The appearance of this axis is 
scarcely a surprise, since the opposition between human and mechanical is 
a prominent theme in Dick s fiction. Less obvious is the axis labeled contra- 
dictory, in which the terms are not opposites to the terms of the first axis but 
exist in a subtler relation of including realms that the first terms exclude. 
The lower- right position is occupied by the “not-organic,” which Jameson 
interprets as lacking organs, that is, as the dead, and the lower-left position 
is held by “neither mechanical nor organic,” to which he assigns those char- 
acters who possess extraordinary or spiritual powers, such as talking ani- 
mals and humans gifted with preternatural abilities. Most of the major 
characters exist in positions synthesizing these four primary terms. From 
this analysis, it becomes clear that the characters are arranged according to 
their power over words or things, a conclusion with important implications 
in these fictions where words are used to reveal the unreality of things and 
where things are used to reveal the instabilities in words. 

In my view, the only unconvincing part of Jameson s argument is the 
supposition he uses to launch his analysis. He points out that Dr. Blood- 
money shows the event that the other mid-sixties novels presume but do 
not depict: the nuclear holocaust that destroys the environment and per- 
manently changes the relation of the human race to Earth. He argues that 
the bomb demands a “flat yes or no,” thus defeating Dick s aesthetic of cre- 
ating an indeterminate reality and requiring a new technique . 29 The char- 
acter system, he suggests, is this new technique, although how it works to 
solve the problem he posits is never made clear. But Dick has no problem 
rendering the reality of the bomb problematic (as we shall see shortly), so 
from this point of view, the character system is overkill. I want to suggest, on 
the contrary, that the character system is more aptly understood in relation 
to a different interpretive problem, one that I believe is central to the nar- 
rative dynamics of Dr. Bloodmoney: the boundary work of turning charac- 
ters who are inside out right-side out. 

The first time the bombs come, the narrative makes clear that the event 
is “actually” taking place, although significantly it is rendered through the 
eyes of Bruno Bluthgeld (the “Dr. Bloodmoney” of the title), a theoretical 
physicist who convinced people that high-altitude nuclear tests would be 
safe. His calculations proved tragically off-base, and a generation of mal- 
formed children were born as a result. N ow, nine years later, he goes by the 
name “Mr. Tree,” fantasizes that large disfiguring blotches under his skin 
mark him for those in the know, and believes that there are massive con- 

Turning Reality Ins i de Out / i 8 i 

spiracies afoot to kill him. Leaving the psychiatrist he has consulted to get 
rid of his “infection” (which he construes physiologically but which the 
reader has no trouble recognizing as paranoid schizophrenia), he sees the 
San Francisco street suddenly sink and tilt to the left. He attributes the 
phenomenon to his astigmatism. “Sense-data so vital, he thought. Not 
merely what you perceive but how. . . . Perhaps I have picked up a mild 
labyrinthitis, a virus infection of the inner ear.” 30 The monstrous incom- 
mensurability between a minor ear infection and a nuclear holocaust 
reveals how out of whack are Bluthgeld’s perceptions. Like other schizo- 
phrenics in Dick’s fiction, he has experienced an inflation of ego so extreme 
that he believes he alone is responsible for everything that happens. In his 
delirium, he interprets the holocaust as a defensive measure he was 
“forced” to take to punish those conspiring against him. 

In contrast to this first scene is the second holocaust, more shadowy than 
real. Bluthgeld, now living as “Mr. Tree” in a postnuclear society on the 
Marin headlands, grotesquely decides that the conspiracy against him has 
been reactivated when Stuart MeConchie arrives in the community. (In the 
afterword to Dr. Bloodmoney, Dick identified McConehie, an African 
American, as representinghis own viewpoint within the novel. ) Alarmed by 
this fantasized conspiracy, Bluthgeld/Mr. Tree concentrates on reactivat- 
ing the destructive forces that will drop the bombs. The second time 
around, it is not so easy for us to decide the ontological status of the bomb. 
Since many of Mr, Tree s other fantasies obviously don’t work, the reader 
may be tempted to dismiss his calling forth the bomb as a private delusion. 
But other characters corroborate that some version of a nuclear hit is taking 
place, although exactly in what sense is not clear. The most important of 
these corroborations is the viewpoint of Walt Dangerfield, a would-be 
Martian emigre trapped in a satellite after war broke out. From high over 
Earth, Dangerfield sees on the horizon a flash that he thinks he recognizes 
from the holocaust nine years earlier. “Seconds passed and there were no 
further explosions. And the one he had seen; it had been peculiarly vague 
and shadow)^, with a diffuseness that had made it seem somehow unreal, as 
if it was only imagined” (p. 230 ) . Thus Dick constructs the event so it hovers 
suspended between internal fantasy and exterior corroboration, using 
much the same multifocal narrative techniques that operate in his other 
novels. Whatever the purpose of the character system, its object cannot be 
to infect the holocaust with ontological uncertainty, for Dick accomplishes 
this by other means. 

So what does the character system accomplish? As I suggested earlier, I 
believe it is directed toward the different problem of how to escape be- 

i 8 2 / Chapter Seven 

coming trapped in the “inside” of a power-mad fantasy and how to turn the 
world right-side out again. Jameson rightly notices that Dick runs into a 
problem when he tries to defeat violent characters by using characters still 
more violent, for the cure quickly becomes worse than the disease. Exactly 
this problem arises in Dr. Bloodmoney. When Mr. Tree goes crazy and 
starts setting off bombs again, Hoppy, a “phocomelus” bom with no legs, 
with flippers for arms, and with fearsome telekinetic powers, saves himself 
(and incidentally the town) by killing Mr. Tree, tossing Mr. Tree high into 
the air by using his telekinetic powers. But Hoppy has a growing megalo- 
mania akin to that of Bluthgeld. Drunk with his powers, he has no empathy 
for anyone else and has such an inflated ego that only his own needs and de- 
sires are real to him. Moreover, his reach extends beyond the town. He has 
been preparing himself to become the world’s dictator by using telekinesis 
to kill Walt Dangerfield and take over his satellite broadcasts, which have 
hitherto provided the one bright spot in an otherwise dark world. Like Mr. 
Tree, Hoppy wants to locate others “inside” his fantasy and arrange matters 
so that others are forced to live there on his terms. 

The resolution comes from another direction entirely. Opposing Hoppy 
and Mr. Tree is Edie Keller, a young girl who carries the homunculus of her 
twin brother. Bill, who formed inside her body when they were in the womb 
and communicates with her telepathically. No doubt her characterization 
reflects Dick’s belief that he carried the spirit of Jane inside his body; Edie 
and Bill are Dick and Jane turned inside out. Whereas Mr. Tree and Hoppy 
are completely narcissistic, the confusion of boundaries that Bill and Edie 
experience includes genuine concern for each other. Bill’s greatest hope is 
that he can exit Edie’s body and live on his own, rather than vicariously 
through her reports to him. Although Edie can be thoughtless and cruel, 
she also tries earnestly to find a suitable home for him. When she hears that 
Mr. Tree has gone crazy, she hurries to him, reasoning that Bill will make 
better use of Mr. Tree’s body. But Hoppy kills Mr. Tree before she can reach 
him. Her next plan is to trick Hoppy into allowing her to get close to him, so 
that Bill can expropriate Hoppys body. But Hoppy, telepathic as well as 
telekinetic, takes Bill out of her body before she can reach the phocomelus; 
he tosses Bill’s tiny, malformed body into the air, as he did with Bluthgeld. 

Bill, however, has authorial resources that Bluthgeld lacked. Tongue in 
cheek, Dick uses an avis ex machina to rescue Bill. Bill succeeds in ex- 
changing bodies with Hoppy seconds before the homunculus body dies. In 
contrast to Hoppys megalomania. Bills aspirations are modest. Although 
I loppy’s body is severely deformed, it is so superior to Bill’s previous body 
that he is delighted with it, for now he can see and hear on his own. Thus the 

Turning Reality Inside Out / 183 

inside/outside confusion is resolved in two ways. Bluthgeld and Hoppy, the 
characters who threatened to expand tin til others were condemned to live 
in the “inside” of their horrific mental worlds, are killed; and Bill and Edie, 
innocents who through no fault of their own were caught in a tragic encap- 
sulation that threatened both their lives, are turned right-side out. The 
happy conclusion reverses the tragic end of Dick and Jane’s twinship. In- 
stead of two children becoming one when the girl twin dies, here one child 
becomes two when the boy twin succeeds in leaving his sister’s body and liv- 
ing on his own. 

Why can this accommodation be achieved in Dr. Bloudmoney when it 
eludes the other mid-sixties novels, with their darker endings? Central to 
this “extremely hopeful novel” (Dick’s phrase in the afterword, p. 300) is 
the characterization of Bonny Keller, who remains largely outside Jame- 
son’s semiotic square. Depicted as a beautiful woman. Bonny is one of the 
very' few attractive females who is neither fetishized as the dark-haired girl 
nor feared as the schizoid woman in Dick’s fiction. Her deepest allegiance 
seems to be toward living life as fully, honestly, and joyfully as possible. The 
day the bombs fall, her immediate reaction is to make love with the first 
man who comes along, Andrew Gill, as if to affirm that life can still goon. As 
a result, Edie and Bill are conceived. As if to confirm that she is emphatic as 
well as life-affirming, her next reaction is to weep for all the people who 
have died in the city. 

Bonny’s moment of truth comes, significantly, when she refuses to take 
responsibility any longer for Bluthgelds madness. Throughout the years 
she has tried to protect him and even to reason with him, but when his mad- 
ness breaks through again, she leaves him to his folly. She has a similar re- 
action when Hoppy starts terrorizing the town. Rather than fight him, she 
intends to get as far away as possible. Somehow her shrugging off these self- 
assigned responsibilities comes across as the right thing to do, even though 
it means leaving her children behind. Talking with Dr. Stockwell, Bill won- 
ders what his mother will think when she realizes she has twins rather than 
a single child. But he and his sister never find out, for Bonny has already run 
off with Andrew Gill. The Gordian knot formed by the tangled complexi- 
ties of mothers who cannot properly care for their children, of twins whose 
lives enmesh with disastrous results, and of vicious circles that form when a 
male character both desires and fears the dark-haired girl/schizoid woman 
is simply cut through by a knifelike clarity that says in effect: “This mess is 
not my responsibility. I have my own life to lead.” 

Jameson remarks that one of the purposes the character system serves is 
a “freshening” of the world, whereby commodified products that used to be 

i8t i / Chapter Seven 

taken for granted become homemade luxuries that bring delight and plea- 
sure to the lives of those who consume them. This redemption of capital- 
ism, the refusal of the double bind of the dark-haired girl/schizoid woman, 
the destruction of those who would engorge themselves so that they can 
forcibly encapsulate others in their “inside,” the turning right-side out of a 
tragically enfolded twin boy and girl, the choice for life over futile self- 
assigned and self-defeating responsibilities — these are the entwined com- 
plexities that the elaborate textual machinery of the character system is 
designed to straighten out. More so than other texts from this period (with 
the possible exception of Martian Time- Slip), Dr. Blooclmoney succeeds in 
cutting through the entanglements figured by schizoid android. 

As Dick moved out of the mid-sixties era, the frequency with which the 
dark-haired girl/schizoid woman appears in his fiction diminishes. Ubik, 
written at the outer range of this period, in 1966, functions as an interesting 
transitional text, for it suggests that Dick was able to resolve the deep ambi- 
guities of the dark-haired girl/schizoid woman configuration through his 
writing. Structured as a series of revelations, each of which exposes its pre- 
decessor as a facade rather than an authentic reality, Ubik uses this favorite 
Dickian technique to suggest that the dark-haired girl/schizoid woman 
configuration is itself merely a facade underlaid by a deeper reality. To see 
how Dick achieves this psychological resolution, let us turn now to this 
complexly reflexive text. 

Dark-Haired Girl/Schizoid Woman as Facade: 

The Reality Underneath 

In Ubik , the struggle to occupy an “outside” relative to someone else’s “in- 
side” takes place on multiple levels. The little guy of the novel, Joe Chip, 
works for Glen Runciter, head of a “prudence organization” that specializes 
in “anti-psis” who can neutralize the psionic talents of telepaths, pre-cogs, 
and the like. Lured to Luna by a business rival, Glen Runciter, Joe Chip, 
and a group of their “anti-psis” are hit by a bomb. What happens afterward 
is notoriously unclear. Fora while J oe believes that Glen has been fatally in- 
jured, and he and his team rush back to Earth to put Glen in cryogenic sus- 
pension, where the little life force that remains can be stretched out into 
several years of “half-life” in a moratorium, a neologism that points toward 
the liminal state that half-lifers occupy as they hover suspended between 
life and death. No sooner does Joe return to Earth, however, than he finds 
the world around him manifesting preternaturally rapid decay. Unlike ear- 
lier protagonists, who accepted the tomb world as reality, Joe puzzles over 

Turning Reality Inside Out / 185 

where the boundaries between inside and outside should be drawn. “It is- 
n’t the universe which is being entombed,” he thinks. “All this is going on 
within me, and yet I seem to see it outside. ... Is the whole world inside 
me? Engulfed by my body?”' 31 The mystery seems to clear when he re- 
ceives messages inscribed on various media — recorded telephone calls, 
matchbook covers, parking citations, bathroom graffiti — implying that it 
was he and his team who were fatally injured in the explosion. In this ver- 
sion of reality, Runciter is “outside” in a moratorium trying to communicate 
with those “inside” the world of dreaming half-lifers. 

Although this explanation may account for the messages, Joe does not 
understand how it relates to the decay and regression, which soon attack 
people as well as objects. The woman he aspires to many’, Wendy Wright, 
who at first looks so “durable” that he can’t imagine her aging — “she had 
too much control over herself and outside reiility for that” (p. 55) — he later 
finds desiccated in his closet, “a huddled heap, dehydrated, almost mum- 
mified” (p. 90). He suspects that the culprit causing this disastrous 
intrusion of the entropic tomb world into his “reality” is Pat Conley, a dev- 
astatingly attractive woman with a lithe body, tell-tale dark eyes, and long 
black hair (p. 31). Pat is particularly dangerous because she can change 
what happened in the past, thus creating a different present — and, more- 
over, a present that other people do not realize is not the same present as 
the one they were living in a moment ago. After several members of Joe’s 
party' turn into desiccated heaps, the decay attacks him . As he crawls up the 
stairs to his room, heroically struggling so that he can die in decent privacy, 
Pat taunts him and gloats over his imminent demise, revealing herself as a 
particularly vicious instantiation of the schizoid woman. “The thing we call 
Pat,” Joe significantly names her in this moment of confrontation (p. 159). 
Yet this signing of the dark-haired girl as an android, a spectacle that in ear- 
lier texts had proved so obsessively engrossing that it derailed the plot (wit- 
ness We Can Build You), here is revealed as a mere facade, behind which 
stands a more “authentic” reality. The real culprit responsible for the desic- 
cation, Joe discovers, is not Pat but the teenage Jory, characterized princi- 
pally by his voracious appetite for life. Condemned to half-life while still an 
adolescent, Joiy maintains his crude but vibrant vitality by feeding on the 
life force of half-lifers weaker than himself. “I eat their life, what remains of 
it,” Jory tells Joe Chip when he is exposed. “I need a lot of them. I used to 
wait until they had been in half-life awhile, but now I have to have them im- 
mediately” (p. 174). 

If part of Dick’s fascination with the schizoid woman/dark-haired girl 
comes from his guilt over Jane’s death, Jorys unveiling moves toward un- 

186 / Chapter Seven 

tangling the complexities of the dark-haired girl/schizoid android configu- 
ration, for it brings into view the child who performs the fantasized act of 
eating what others need to survive. The flat horror that attends Jon ’s canni- 
balistic appetite recalls Dick’s teenage phobia of eating in public. When Joe 
hears that Jory consumes his victims, he recoils in horror. “'How do you 
mean “ate”?’ Literally? he wondered, his flesh undulating with aversion; 
the gross physical motion rolled through him, engulfing him, as if his body 
wanted to shrink away” (p. 173). He learns firsthand what Jory does when 
the youngster leaps at him. Even though the perceived actions must be 
happening symbolically rather than literally (in half-life each person is 
cryogenically suspended in his or her individual container, so physical as- 
sault is impossible), the description of the attack is vividly animalistic and 
horrific. “Snarling, Jory bit him. The great shovel teeth fastened into Joe’s 
right hand. They hung on as, meanwhile, Jory raised his head, lifting Joes 
hand with his jaw; Jory stared at him with unwinking eyes, snoring wetly as 
he tried to close his jaws” (pp. 175-76). 

The intensity of Dick’s revulsion here is unmistakable. Nevertheless, 
Jory finds a measure of absolution, as if Dick recognized that Jory is only do- 
ing what he must to survive. Ella Runeiter, Glen’s wife who entered half-life 
at age twenty-two and who is described as “pretty,” “light-skinned,” and 
blue-eyed in the tradition of Bonny Keller, acts like the mother that Dick 
might have wished he had. She insists, “God knows I detest Jory'.” But she 
also accepts Jory 7 and his kind as a condition of life, seeing his preying on 
others as “a verity, a rule, of our kind of life.” She urges Joe to come to terms 
with Jory’s predation, insisting that moving to a new 7 site won’t help because 
there are “Jorys in every moratorium.” When Joe insists that he wants to 
“defeat” Jory, she cautions, “I doubt if you can truly destroy him — in other 
words consume him — as he does to half-lifers placed near him in the mora- 
torium” (p. 183). The language makes clear that consuming the predator 
cannot be a final solution, for the only w 7 ay to achieve this illusory 7 closure is 
by taking the predator “inside,” thus symbolically and literally becoming a 
predator oneself. 

As in Dick’s other novels from this period, the psychological interpene- 
trates the social and the economic. It comes as no surprise, then, that Joiy’s 
appetite is also linked with the relentless capitalism that preempts the be- 
ginning of each chapter with a commercial for Ubik. When Joe asks Ella 
why Jory can’t simply be physically removed from proximity with the half- 
lifers he preys on, she replies, “Herbert [the moratorium owner] is paid a 
great deal of money annually, by j ory’s family, to keep him with the others 
and to think up plausible reasons for doing so” (p. 183) . In the commercials 

Turning Reality Inside Our / 1 8 7 

that serve as epigraphs for the chapters, Ubik signifies all manner of capi- 
talist predation, from used cars to foods, accompanied by the ominous dis- 
claimer “Safe when used as directed.” As in Dr. Bloodmoney, resolution of 
a personal crisis is mysteriously linked with the redemption of capitalism, 
even though resolution in the economic sphere is not logically motivated in 
the plot. 

Thus when Jory is revealed and accepted as an inevitability, the meaning 
of Ubik is mysteriously changed as well. In the final epigraph, we find the 
followingproclamation: “I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am ... I cre- 
ated the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them 
there. They go as I say, they do as I tell them. ... I am called Ubik, but that 
is not my name. I am. I shall always be” (p. 190). When Joe Chip discovers 
Ella as the force opposing Jory and muses, “I’ve reached the last entities in- 
volved,” she replies caustically: “I don’t think of myself as an ‘entity.’ I usu- 
ally think of myself as Ella Runciter” (p. 182). Now, the unlocatable voice 
speaking the epigraph seems to reveal itself as the “final entity.” To my 
knowledge, no one has attempted to explain why Ubik changes from signi- 
fying the worst excesses of capitalism to standing for a ubiquitous God. 
Many critics even suggest that Ubik has somehow “really” been God all 
along. I want to suggest that on the contrary, Ubik undergoes a sudden 
transformation and that this transformation cannot be understood except 
in relation to the revelation that behind Pat stands Jory and behind Jory 
stands his animalistic appetite. Only after acknowledging this appetite 
(which must be understood as operating on the multiple levels signified by 
“consuming”) can the author discern, among the trashy surfaces of capital- 
ist excess, the divine within the world — and by implication, within himself. 

F or if Ubik is intended to signify an ultimate “authentic” reality, it can do 
so only from a perspective inside the text. Outside the text (let us suppose, 
Derrida notwithstanding, that we can imagine such a vantage), Ubik must 
be none other than Philip K. Dick. It is ultimately Dick who “created the 
lives and the places [the characters] inhabit,” who “put them there” in this 
text. Confused about where Ubik comes from, Joe at first assumes that 
Runciter has smuggled it to him, but Jory insists that no objects can come 
into the half-life world from the outside, only words. The distinction be- 
tween words and things encoded into the character system of Dr. Blood- 
money is here invoked to remind us of the difference between resolution in 
fictional worlds, where writing has efficacy only in the performative realm 
of symbolic action, and resolution in the real world, where the materiality 
of things is often stubbornly resistant to verbal interventions. This split be- 
tween words and things maps onto the split in Dick’s life between past and 

188 / Chapter Seven 

present, sedimented psychological formation and present active intention. 
If he is writing his way toward resolving deep conflicts in his life, he can do 
so through words that have only a mediated and uncertain relation to the 
ghosts inhabiting his psyche. As a writer, he passes messages through his 
fiction into his own heart of darkness, hoping that somehow they might 
prove efficacious. Within the world of the text, the murmurs the half-lifers 
hear from the world “outside” trope this situation, for nothings can pass be- 
tween “inside” and “outside,” only words. Joe Chip seems to comment on 
this aspect of Dicks writing when he remarks, from his perspective in half- 
life: “We are served by organic ghosts . . . who, speaking and writing, pass 
through this our new environment. Watching, wise, physical ghosts from 
the full-life world, elements of which have become for us invading 
but agreeable splinters of a substance that pulsates like a former heart” 
(pp. 188-89). 

Ubik’s distinctive achievement is to represent simultaneously the per- 
formative power of language and the mediated, uncertain relation of lan- 
guage to the material world while also mapping this difference onto an 
“inside”-“outside” boundary that hints at the complexity of communication 
between self and other, conscious and unconscious. The hope Ubik holds 
out is that although boundary disputes will never disappear, inside and out- 
side can be made to touch each other through the medium of a writing that 
is no less valuable for infecting our world with all manner of epistemologi- 
cal and ontological instabilities. 

Punctuating the Endless Regress of Reflexivity 

Like Maturana and Varela, Dick is a system builder. He takes seriously an 
idea they also propose (following Spencer-Brown): that the observer cre- 
ates a system by drawing a distinction between inside and outside. For 
Maturana and Varela, this move introduced certain instabilities into the 
foundation of their system, instabilities that they sought to fix by locating 
the formation of the system boundaries in reality as such. For Dick, such 
instabilities have potentially deadly consequences as subjects struggle to 
define boundaries that are “outside” relative to others’ “inside.” Consis- 
tent with their base in the biological sciences, Maturana and Varela tend 
to assume rational observers. The observer they posit is the kind of ob- 
server who sits in a laboratory watching an instrument dial. Granting con- 
structive power to the observer may be epistemologically radical, but it is 
not necessarily politically or psychologically radical, for the rational ob- 
server can be assumed to exercise restraint. Dick makes no such assump- 

Turning Reality Inside Out / 189 

tion. His conclusions are darker and more psychologically complex be- 
cause he is acutely aware of cases in which the stability of the observing 
mind cannot be assumed, especially when the act of creating a world may 
stimulate an already insatiable appetite for power and self-expansion. 
Thus Dick uses the inclusion of the observer to opposite effect. Whereas 
Maturana and Varela use the “domain of the observer” to recuperate 
everyday notions like cause and effect, Dick uses it to estrange further 
consensus reality. 

Similarly, Dick shares with second-wave cybernetics an emphasis on re- 
flexivity, though he changes its use and intent. Maturana sought to rescue 
the rcflexivity inherent in autopoiesis from an infinite regress by asserting, 
“We do not see what we do not see, and what we do not see does not exist.” 32 
The infinite regress of observers watching other observers is thus con- 
tained, for the reflexive spiral does not continue past the boundaries of the 
observer. Sharing Maturana’s passion for systems, Dick used a different 
strategy. Instead of bracketing “reality,” he turned to the creation of ever 
more inclusive systems. His most ambitious attempt at system creation 
sprang from a series of visionary' experiences he had in February and March 
of 1974, dates that he abbreviated as 2-3-74. To explain these experiences, 
he wrote a vast tract, entitled Exegesis, that ran to more than three thou- 
sand pages in length, selections of which have been published. 

There is a possible physiological explanation, skeptically entertained by 
Dick’s biographer Lawrence Sutin and embraced by others, for the visions 
of 2-3-74. 33 Within eight years Dick would die of a massive stroke, and 
throughout this period, he had extreme hypertension. The visions he expe- 
rienced are consistent with symptoms experienced by people who have had 
small strokes in the brain, which can stimulate the auditory' centers and 
cause hallucinations. Dick himself was skeptical of the visions and enter- 
tained numerous hypotheses about them. As if to make good Maturana s as- 
sertion that there can be no difference between a hallucination and reality 
for one who experiences the hallucination, 34 Dick finally concluded that 
the most likely explanation was that he had been contacted by an extrater- 
restrial intelligence he called the Vast Active Living Intelligent System, or 
VALIS, the subject of a final trilogy of novels that are among the best of his 
fiction. On November 17, 1980, he had another visionary experience, in 
which he believed God contacted him directly. For Dick, the contact 
solved the problem of infinite regress that inevitably haunts reflexive con- 
structions. Wherever a regress appeared, the voice claimed that Dick had 
encountered the infinite, therefore the divine, therefore God. Here is 
Dick s account of the experience, as it is recorded in Exegesis. 

190 / Chapter Seven 

[God] said, “I am the infinite. I will showyou. Where I am, infinity is; where in- 
finity is, there I am. Construct lines of reasoning by which to understand your 
experience in 1974. 1 will enter the field against their shifting nature. You think 
they are logical but they are not; they are infinitely creative.” 

I thought a thought and then an infinite regress of theses and countertheses 
came into being. God said, “Here I am; here is infinity.” I thought another ex- 
planation; again an infinite series of thoughts split off in dialectical antithetical 
interaction. God said, “Here is infinity; here 1 am.” 35 

For Dick, the construction of the observer cannot finally be separated from 
the construction of reality. Both end at the same point, in infinite regresses 
that, for mystical reasons, he chose to call God rather than a Maturanian re- 
ality that remains outside the compass ofhuman knowing. In this way, Dick 
constructs an outside, authorized with the name of God and made invul- 
nerable by continuing to infinity, an outside that is safe from being co-opted 
and forced to become an “inside.” The irony, of course, is that this very con- 
struction may itself have been precipitated by a physical event inside his 

In contrast to the ambitious system building that Dick undertook in re- 
sponse to the visions of 2-3-74, his fiction of the mid-sixties tends toward a 
different kind of affirmation, one that I find more appealing. It can be illus- 
trated by the ending of Do Androids Dream. After Deckard succeeds in 
killing the last three androids on his list and returns home to find out that 
Rachael has pushed his beloved goat off the roof, he is so exhausted and de- 
moralized that he heads for the desolate country north of San Francisco, 
“where no living thing would go. Not unless it felt that the endhad come.” 36 
There he has a visionary experience. Hundreds of miles from his govern- 
ment-sanctioned empathy box, he feels a rock hit him as he stands on top of 
a dead hill, as if he were enacting Mercers endless scenario. Panicked, he 
calls the office on the earphone and tells his secretary: “I’m Wilbur Mercer. 
I’ve permanently fused with him. And I can’t unfuse” (p. 207) . Here the ex- 
pansion of the ego comes not from megalomania but from suffering and in- 
ner conflict, a result of the empathy that Deckard has increasingly come to 
feel for the androids. Psychologically if not intellectually, he has refused the 
distinctions that make androids fair game for bounty hunters. The fusion 
experience ends only when he spies a toad, an animal sacred to Mercer, 
half-buried in the lifeless dust. Awed by his discover)-, he takes it as a sign 
that he is meant to go on living. 

When he returns home to Iran, his wife, and shows her the toad, she dis- 
covers the trap door hidden in its belly. It is electrical, like the ersatz sheep 

Turning Reality Inside Out / 191 

with which he tried to fool his neighbors. The sign is a delusion; the miracle 
is a fake. But this ironic turn is not quite the end. lie tells Iran that the delu- 
sion doesn’t matter; “The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those 
lives are” (p. 214). When Iran tells him to dial “Long deserved peace” on the 
mood organ, he agrees but falls asleep without it, finding peace without 
needing a cybernetic benediction. She then orders artificial Hies for 
the electric toad to eat, showing a tenderness toward her husband that was 
notably lacking at the beginning of the novel. Although nothing has hap- 
pened to explain how she moved from bitterness to tenderness, it is as if 
Deckards struggle with the schizoid android has somehow resolved ten- 
sions in their relationship as well. The symbolic way in which resolution oc- 
curs emphasizes that no big problems are solved here. Only a modest 
accommodation has been reached, infused with multiple ironies, that em- 
phasizes survival and the mixed condition of humans who are at their best 
when they show tolerance and affection for the creatures, biological and 
mechanical, with whom they share the planet. One could do worse than to 
accept this as a fitting conclusion to the deep epistemological and ethical 
problems that second-wave cybernetics raised but did not conclusively 

Chapter Eight 


Every epoch has beliefs, widely accepted by contemporaries, that appear 
fantastic to later generations. Of such are New Historical studies made — 
with good reason, for understanding the constellation of practices, meta- 
phors, and presuppositions that underlie apparently bizarre beliefs opens a 
window onto a culture s ideology. One contemporary belief likely to stupefy 
future generations is the postmodern orthodoxy that the body is primarily, 
if not entirely, a linguistic and discursive construction. Coincident with 
cybernetic developments that stripped information of its body were 
discursive analyses within the humanities, especially the archaeology of 
knowledge pioneered by Michel Foucault, that saw the body as a play of 
discourse systems. Although researchers in the physical and human sci- 
ences acknowledged the importance of materiality in different ways, they 
nevertheless collaborated in creating the postmodern ideology that the 
body’s materiality is secondary to the logical or semiotic structures it en- 

It is not difficult to find pronouncements supporting an ideology of dis- 
embodiment in cultural theory, no less than in cybernetics. Consider, for 
example, the following claims, “The human body, our body, seems super- 
fluous in its proper expanse, in the complexity and multiplicity of its organs, 
of its tissue and functions, because today everything is concentrated in the 
brain and the genetic code, which alone sum up the operational definition 
of being,” Jean Baudrillard wrote in The Ecstasy of Communication . 1 
Arthur Kroker and Marilouise Kroker out-Baudrillard Baudrillard in Body 
Invaders: Panic Sex in America, imagining “second-order simulacra” and 
“floating body parts” that herald the disappearance of the body into a fluid 
and changing display of signs. “If, today, there can be such an intense fasci- 
nation with the fate of the body, might this not be because the body no 


The Materiality of Informatics / 193 

longer exists?” they ask in what they evidently believe is a rhetorical ques- 
tion. They count the ways the body is disappearing: ideologically, into the 
signs of fashion; epistemologically, as the Cartesian consciousness guaran- 
teeing its existence falls apart (that “grisly and false sense of subjectivity”); 
semiotically, into tattoos and floating signs; and technologically, into “ultra 
refuse” and “hyper-functionality.” 2 O. B. Hardison concludes his disap- 
pearing act by writing the body into computers. He pensively observes, 
“No matter what precautions are taken, no matter how luck)- the body is, in 
the end it betrays itself.” Echoing Hans Moravec, he imagines “the relation 
between carbon man and the silicon devices he is creating” to be like “the 
relation between the caterpillar and the iridescent, winged creature that 
the caterpillar unconsciously prepares to become.” 3 

llow can we account for these ecstatic pronouncements and delirious 
dreams? As I suggested in chapters 1 and 2, 1 believe they should be taken 
as evidence not that the body has disappeared but that a certain kind of sub- 
jectivity has emerged. This subjectivity is constituted by the crossing of the 
materiality of informatics with the immateriality of information. 4 The very' 
theorists who most emphatically claim that the body is disappearing also 
operate within material and cultural circumstances that make the claim for 
the body’s disappearance seem plausible. The: body’s dematerialization de- 
pends in complex and highly specific ways on the embodied circumstances 
that an ideology of dematerialization would obscure. Excavating these con- 
nections requires a way of talking about the body responsive to its con- 
struction as discourse/information and yet not trapped within it. This 
chapter suggests a new', more flexible framework in w'hich to think about 
embodiment in an age of virtuality. This framework comprises two dynam- 
ically interacting polarities. The first polarity unfolds as an interplay be- 
tween the body as a cultural construct and the experiences of embodiment 
that individual people within a culture feel and articulate. The second po- 
larity can be understood as a dance between inscribing and incorporating 
practices. Since the body and embodiment, inscription and incorporation, 
are in constant interaction, the distinctions forming these polarities are 
heuristic rather than absolute. They nev ertheless play an important role in 
understanding the connections between an ideology of immateriality and 
the material conditions that produce the ideology 7 . 

Thus one purpose of this chapter is to develop a theoretical framework 
to integrate the two camps of abstraction and embodiment that have been 
sitting uneasily side by side since my discussion of the Macy Conferences. 
A second purpose is to demonstrate the usefulness of the framework for 
reading texts. William Burroughs’s The Ticket That Exploded serves as my 

<94 / Chapter Eight 

example, in part because Burroughs turns the tables on those who advocate 
disembodiment. Instead of discourse dematerializing the body, in Ticket 
the body materializes discourse. Situating this text in the high technology 
(for its time) of magnetic tape-recording, I demonstrate how the theoreti- 
cal framework can be used to foreground embodiment while still being at- 
tentive to the complexities of representational codes. To prepare the 
ground for these discussions, let us turn now to a brief consideration of 
Foucault’s archaeology and its treatment of embodiment. 

Foucaults Archaeology and the Erasure of Embodiment 

Acknowledging that the Panopticon was never built, Foucault nevertheless 
argues that it “must not be understood as a dream building; it is the diagram 
of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, ab- 
stracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a 
pure architectural and optical system; it is in fact a figure of political tech- 
nology that may and must be detached from any specific use .” 5 On the one 
hand, the abstraction of the Panopticon beyond “any obstacle, resistance or 
friction” into a system of disciplines dispersed throughout society gives 
Foucaults analysis its power and universality. On the other hand, it diverts 
attention away from how actual bodies, in their cultural and physical speci- 
ficities, impose, incorporate, and resist incorporation of the material prac- 
tices he describes. 

It is not coincidental that the Panopticon abstracts power out of the bod- 
ies of disciplinarians into a universal, disembodied gaze. On the contrary, it 
is precisely this move that gives the Panopticon its force, for when the bod- 
ies of the disciplinarians seem to disappear into the technology, the limita- 
tions of corporeality are hidden. Although the bodies of the disciplined do 
not disappear in Foucault’s account, the specificities of their corporealities 
fade into the technology as well, becoming a universalized body worked 
upon in a uniform way by surveillance techniques and practices. When ac- 
tual situations involving embodied agents are considered, limits appear 
that are obscured when the Panopticon is considered only as an abstract 
mechanism. Failing to recognize these limits, Foucault’s analysis rein- 
scribes as well as challenges the presuppositions of the Panoptic society. 
F oucault thus participates in, as well as deconstructs, the Panoptic move of 
disembodiment. Exposing the assumptions underlying Panoptic society, 
his analysis also fetishistically reconstructs them by positing a body consti- 
tuted through discursive formations and material practices that erase the 
contextual enactments embodiment always entails . 6 A useful antidote to 

The Materiality of Informatics / 195 

this view is Elaine Scarry’s study of torture in The Body in Pain: The Making 
and Unmaking of the World. ' Like Foucault, Scarry interrogates the cul- 
tural assumptions and political purposes that underlie the use of torture; 
also like Foucault, when she talks about assaults on the body, she uses rep- 
resentations to bring them into the realm of discourse (what other choice 
could there be?). But unlike Foucault’s discussions, her representations 
are crafted to emphasize that bodily practices have a physical reality' that 
can never be fully assimilated into discourse. 

Although the absorption of embodiment into discourse imparts inter- 
pretive power to Foucault, it also limits his analysis in significant ways. 
Many commentators have criticized the universality of the Foueaultian 
body; this universality 7 is a direct result of concentrating on discourse rather 
than embodiment. 8 Fissuring along lines of class, gender, race, and privi- 
lege, embodied practices create heterogeneous spaces even when the dis- 
cursive formations describing those practices seem uniformly dispersed 
throughout the society. The assimilation of embodiment into discourse has 
the additional disadvantage of making it difficult to understan d exactly how 
certain practices spread through a society 7 . Foucault delineates the trans- 
formations that occurred when corporeal punishment gave way to surveil- 
lance, but the engine driving these changes remains obscure. Focusing on 
embodiment would help to clarify the mechanisms of change, for it links 
a changing technological landscape with the instantiated enactments that 
create feedback loops between materiality 7 and discourse. Building on 
Foucault’s work while going beyond it requires understanding how 7 em- 
bodiment moves in conjunction with inscription, technology 7 , and ideology. 
Attentive to discursive constructions, such an analysis would also examine 
how 7 embodied humans interact with the material conditions in which they 
are placed. 

Elizabeth Grosz makes a good start in her valuable study, Volatile 
Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism . 9 She argues that the mind/body 
split, pervasive in the Western tradition, is so bound up with philosophical 
thinking that philosophy literally cannot conceive of itself as having a body. 
“Philosophy has always considered itself a discipline concerned primarily 
or exclusively with ideas, concepts, reason, judgment — that is, with terms 
clearly framed by the concept of mind, terms which marginalize or exclude 
considerations of the body” (p. 4). Even those philosophers who do take 
embodiment seriously tend unreflectingly to take the male body as the 
norm, as Grosz show's in discussing a range of theorists, including Merleau- 
Ponty, Freud, Lacan, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Deleuze and Guattari. 
Reading these male writers to find resources for a feminist understanding 

i 9 6 / Chapter Eight 

of embodiment, she offers as a model a Mobius strip in which outside be- 
comes inside becomes outside. The attraction of the model for her is that it 
undercuts dichotomies by having one turn into the other. So she structures 
her book by first showing how' models of the psyche produce the body, the 
“inside out,” and then how the body produces the psyche, the “outside in.” 

En route to this analysis, she makes an important observation: “Indeed, 
there is no body as such; there are only bodies — male or female, black, 
brown, white, large or small— and the gradations in between. Bodies can 
be represented or understood not as entities in themselves or simply on a 
linear continuum with its polar extremes occupied by male and female 
bodies . . , but as a field, a two-dimensional continuum in which race (and 
possibly even class, caste, or religion) form body specifications” (p. 19). Al- 
though I am fully sympathetic with Grosz s project, the Mobius strip model 
has limitations, as she recognizes (pp. 209-10). In particular, the imper- 
ceptible transformations of inside/outside make it difficult to chart grada- 
tions within the continuum. It seems to me that the “field” in which bodies 
take shape may profitably be represented as an interplay between two in- 
tersecting axes. The polarities defining the end points of the axes acknowl- 
edge the historical importance of dichotomies, but the field itself is 
generated by the interplay between these end points. 

To delineate this field, let me begin by clarifying what I mean by embod- 
iment, an understanding that aligns itself with Grosz s comment that “there 
is no body as such; there are only bodies.” Embodiment differs from the 
concept of the body in that the body is always normative relative to some set 
of criteria. To explore how the body is constructed within Renaissance 
medical discourse, for example, is to investigate the normative assump- 
tions used to constitute a particular kind of social and discursive concept. 
Normalization can also take place with someone’s particular experiences of 
embodiment, converting the heterogeneous flux of perception into a rei- 
fied stable object. In contemporary scientific visualization technologies 
such as positron-emission tomography (PET), for example, embodiment is 
converted into a body through imaging technologies that create a normal- 
ized construct averaged over many data points to give an idealized version 
of the object in question. 10 In contrast to the body, embodiment is contex- 
tual, enmeshed within the specifics of place, time, physiology, and culture, 
which together compose enactment. Embodiment never coincides exactly 
with “the body,” however that normalized concept is understood. Whereas 
the body is an idealized form that gestures toward a Platonic reality, em- 
bodiment is the specific instantiation generated from the noise of differ- 
ence. Relative to the body, embodiment is other and elsewhere, at once 

The Materiality of Informatics / 197 

excessive and deficient in its infinite variations, particularities, and abnor- 

During any given period, experiences of embodiment are in continual 
interaction with constructions of the body. Consider, for example, the 
stress put on the vaginal orgasm during the early part of the twentieth cen- 
tury across a range of cultural sites, from Freudian psychoanalysis to the 
novels of D. H. Lawrence. Womens experiences of embodiment inter- 
acted with this concept in a variety of ways. Some women disciplined their 
experiences to bring them into line with the concept; others registered 
their experiences as defective because they were other than the concept; 
still others were skeptical about the concept because it did not match their 
experiences. Experiences of embodiment, far from existing apart from cul- 
ture, are always already imbricated within it. Yet because embodiment is 
individually articulated, there is also at least an incipient tension between it 
and hegemonic cultural constructs. Embodiment is thus inherently desta- 
bilizing with respect to the body, for at anytime this tension can widen into 
a perceived disparity. 

Foucault is not exceptional in focusing on the body rather than embodi- 
ment. Most theorists who write on corporeality' make the same choice, for 
theory by its nature seeks to articulate general patterns and overall trends 
rather than individual instantiations. Theories, like numbers, require a cer- 
tain level of abstraction and generality to work. A theory that did not gener- 
alize would be like the number scheme that Jorge Luis Borges imagines in 
“Funes the Memorious .” 11 Funes, blessed or cursed by a head injury 7 that 
enables him to remember each sensation and thought in all its particularity 7 
and uniqueness, proposes that each number be assigned a unique, nonsys- 
tematic name bearing no relation to the numbers that come before and af- 
ter it. If embodiment could be articulated separate from the body— an 
impossibility for several reasons, not least because articulation system- 
atizes and normalizes experiences in the act of naming them — it would be 
like Funes s numbers, a froth of discrete utterances registering the contin- 
uous and infinite play of difference. 

Yet there are theories, like this one, that abstractly and generally insist on 
the importance of the particular. Michel de Certeau, for example, provides 
a useful corrective to Foucault in pointing to the importance of individual 
articulations of cultural appropriations . 12 Embodiment is akin to articula- 
tion in that it is inherently performative, subject to individual enactments, 
and therefore always to some extent improvisational. Whereas the body 
can disappear into information with scarcely a murmur of protest, embod- 
iment cannot, for it is tied to the circumstances of the occasion and the per- 

i 9 8 / Chapter Eight 

son. As soon as embodiment is acknowledged, the abstractions of the 
Panopticon disintegrate into the particularities of specific people embed- 
ded in specific contexts. Along with these particularities come concomitant 
strategies for resistances and subversions, excesses and deviations. 

It is primarily the body that is naturalized within a culture; embodiment 
becomes naturalized only secondarily through its interactions with con- 
cepts of the body. Consequently, when theorists uncover the ideological 
underpinnings of naturalization, they denaturalize the body rather than 
embodiment. As the example of Foucault illustrates, it is possible to decon- 
struct the content of the abstraction while still leaving the mechanism of ab- 
straction intact. Moving out of the frictionless and disembodied realm of 
abstraction requires articulating embodiment and the body together. How 
can this articulation be accomplished without simply absorbing embodi- 
ment back into the body? 

One possibility is to complicate and enrich the tension between embodi- 
ment and the body by juxtaposing this tension with another binary distinc- 
tion — inscription and incorporation — that partly converges and partly 
diverges from it. I envision these two bimodalities acting in complex synco- 
pation with each other, like two sine waves moving at different frequencies 
and with different periods of repetition. How does the inscription/incor- 
poration coupling relate to body/embodiment? Like the body, inscription 
is normalized and abstract, in the sense that it is usually considered as a sys- 
tem of signs operating independently of any particular manifestation. In 
Foucaults analysis of Linnaeus’s biological taxonomies, it does not matter 
whether the taxonomies were originally printed in Gothic or Roman type; 
their significance derives from the concepts they express, not from the 
medium in which they' appear. When the concepts are transported from 
one medium to another, for instance by being cited in Foucaults text and 
thus printed in a different typeface, the original medium disappears from 
sight. Moreover, even the awareness that the original medium has disap- 
peared is erased by the implicit assumption that Linnaeus's words have 
been exactly reproduced. Such writing practices are so common that we do 
not normally attend to them. I foreground them now to point out that they 
constitute inscription as a conceptual abstraction rather than as an instanti- 
ated materiality. 

In contrast to inscription is incorporation. An incorporating practice 
such as a good-bye wave cannot be separated from its embodied medium, 
for it exists as such only when it is instantiated in a particular hand making 
a particular kind of gesture. It is possible, of course, to abstract a sign 
from the embodied gesture by representing it in a different medium, for 

The Materiality of Informatics / 199 

example by drawing on a page the outline of a stylized hand, with wavy 
lines indicating motion. In this case, however, the gesture is no longer an 
incorporating practice. Rather, it has been transformed precisely into an 
inscription that functions as if it were independent of any particular in- 

This line of thought leads to the following homology: as the body is to 
embodiment, so inscription is to incorporation. Just as embodiment is in 
constant interplay with the body, so incorporating practices are in constant 
interplay with inscriptions that abstract the practices into signs. When the 
locus is on the body, the particularities of embodiment tend to fade from 
view; similarly, when the focus is on inscription, the particularities of incor- 
poration tend to fade from view. Conversely, when the focus shifts to em- 
bodiment, a specific material experience emerges out of the abstraction of 
the body, just as the particularities of an incorporating practice emerge out 
of the abstraction of inscription. Embodiment cannot exist without a mate- 
rial structure that always deviates in some measure from its abstract repre- 
sentations; an incorporating practice cannot exist without an embodied 
creature to enact it, a creature who always deviates in some measure from 
the norms. One path into further understanding the articulation between 
embodiment and the body, then, is to explore the connection between in- 
scribing and incorporating practices. 

Incorporating Practices and Embodied Knowledge 

The distinction between incorporating and inscribing practices, a distinc- 
tion implicit in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Percep- 
tion, 13 bas been developed further by Paul Connerton in How Societies 
Remember. Following Connerton, I mean by an incorporating practice an 
action that is encoded into bodily memory by repeated performances until 
it becomes habitual. Learning to type is an incorporating practice, as both 
Connerton and Merleau-Ponty observe. When we say that someone knows 
how to tvpe, we do not mean that the person can cognitively map the loca- 
tion of the keys or can understand the mechanism producing the marks. 
Rather, we mean that this person has repeatedly performed certain actions 
until the keys seem to be extensions of his or her fingers. Someone can 
know how to type but not know how to read the words produced, such as 
when a typist reproduces script in a language that the typist does not speak; 
conversely, just as someone can be able to read a typescript without know- 
ing how to type. The body’s competencies and skills are distinct from dis- 
course, although in some contexts they can produce discourse or can be 

200 / Chapter Eight 

read discursively. This is Connerton s point when he notes that the meaning 
of a bodily practice “cannot be reduced to a sign which exists on a separate 
‘level’ outside the immediate sphere of the body’s acts. Habit is a knowl- 
edge and a remembering in the hands and in the body; and in the cultiva- 
tion of habit it is our body which ‘understands.’ ” 14 

In distinguishing between inscribing practices and incorporating prac- 
tices, I do not mean to imply that incorporating practices are in any sense 
more “natural,” more universal, or less expressive of culture than inscribing 
practices. The body is enculturated through both kinds of practices. Char- 
acteristic ways of sitting, gesturing, walking, and moving are culturally 
specific, just as are characteristic ways of talking and writing. Moreover, 
culture not only flows from the environment into the body but also em- 
anates from the body into the environment. The body produces culture at 
the same time that culture produces the body. Posture and the extension of 
limbs in the space around the body, for example, convey to children the 
gendered ways in which men and women occupy space. These nonverbal 
lessons are frequently reinforced verbally; “boys don’t walk like that,” or 
“girls don’t sit with their legs open.” It is significant that verbal injunctions 
often take a negative form, as in these illustrations, for the positive content 
is much more effectively conveyed through incorporating rather than in- 
scribing practices. Showing someone how to stand is easy, but describing in 
words all the nuances of the desired posture is difficult. Incorporating prac- 
tices perform the bodily content; inscribing practices correct and modulate 
the performance. Thus incorporating and inscribing practices work to- 
gether to create cultural constructs. Gender, the focus of these examples, is 
produced and maintained not only by gendered languages but also by gen- 
dered body practices that serve to discipline and incorporate bodies into 
the complex significations and performances that constitute gender within 
a given culture . 15 

Because incorporating practices are always performative and instanti- 
ated, they necessarily contain improvisational elements that are context- 
specific. Postures are generalizable to some extent, but their enactments 
also depend on the specifics of the embodied individual: the precise length 
of limbs and torso, the exact musculature connecting tendon and joint, the 
sedimented history of body experience shaping the muscle tension and 
strength. Incorporation emerges from the collaboration between the body 
and embodiment, between the abstract model and the specific contexts in 
which the model is instantiated. In contrast to inscription, which can be 
transported from context to context once it has been performed, incorpo- 
ration can never be cut entirely free from its context. As we shall see, the 

The Materiality of Informatics / 201 

contextual components of incorporation give it qualities that are distinc- 
tively diff erent from those of inscription. 

Just as incorporating practices are not necessarily more “natural” than 
inscribing practices, so embodiment is not more essentialist than the body. 
Indeed, it is difficult to see what essentialism would mean in the context of 
embodiment. Essentialism is normative in its impulse, denoting qualities 
or attributes shared by all human beings. Though it is true that all humans 
share embodiment, embodied experience is dispersed along a spectrum of 
possibilities. Which possibilities are activated depends on the contexts of 
enactment, so that no one position is more essential than any other. For 
similar reasons, embodiment does not imply an essentialist self. As Fran- 
cisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch argue in The Embodied 
Mind a coherent, continuous, essential self is neither necessary nor suffi- 
cient to explain embodied experience. 16 The closer one comes to the flux of 
embodiment, Varela and his coauthors believe, the more one is aware that 
the coherent self is a fiction invented out of panic and fear. In this view’, em- 
bodiment subversively undercuts essentialism rather than reinforces it. 

If embodiment is not essentialist, it is also not algorithmic. This conclu- 
sion has important implications for debates over what difference embodi- 
ment makes to thinking and learning. In What Computers Can’t Do, 
Hubert Dreyfus argues that many human behaviors cannot be formalized 
in a heuristic program for a digital computer because these behaviors are 
embodied. For Dreyf us, embodiment means that humans have available to 
them a mode of learning, and hence of intellection, different from that de- 
riving from cogitation alone. He gives the example of a child learning to 
pick up a cup. The child need not have an analytic understanding of the mo- 
tor responses and dynamics involved in this action; the child need only flail 
around until managing to connect. Then, to learn the action to be able to 
perform it at will, the child only has to repeat what was done before. At no 
point does the child have to break down the action into analytical compo- 
nents or explicit instructions. 

The advantage of this kind of learning is that everything does not need to 
be specified in advance. Moreover, the learning can be structured into 
complex relations without the necessity of a formal recognition that the re- 
lations exist. Drawing from Maurice Merleau-Pontv, Karl Polanyi, Jean 
Piaget, and other phenomenologists, Dreyfus delineates three functions 
that are characteristic of embodied learning and are not present in com- 
puter programs: an “inner horizon” that consists of a partly determined, 
partly open context of anticipation; the global character of the anticipation, 
which relates it to other pertinent contexts in fl uid, shifting patterns of con- 

202 / Chapter Eight 

nection; and the transferability of such anticipation from one sense modal- 
ity to another. 17 One implication of this view of embodied learning is that 
humans know much more than they consciously realize they know. An- 
other is that this embodied knowledge may not be completely formaliz- 
able, since the openness of the horizon allows for ambiguities and new 
permutations that cannot be programmed into explicit decision proce- 
dures. As we shall see in chapter 9, this provides researchers in mobile ro- 
botics such as Rodney Brooks with an argument for the superiority of 
mobile (embodied) robots over computer programs, which have no capac- 
ity to move about and explore the environment. In ways Dreyfus did not an- 
ticipate, artificial-life researchers have moved closer to his position than to 
the artificial-intelligence research programs that he argues against. 

A further implication of embodied interaction with the environment is 
developed by Pierre Bourdieu. He argues that even if one is successful in 
reducing some area of embodied knowledge to analytical categories and 
explicit procedures, one has in the process changed the kind of knowledge 
it is, for the fluid, contextual interconnections that define the open horizons 
of embodied interactions would have solidified into discrete entities and 
sequential instructions. He makes this point — that largely unnoticed and 
unacknowledged changes occur when embodied knowledge is expressed 
through analytical schema — in his discussion of the seasonal rituals of the 
Kabyle, a group of Berber tribes living in Algeria and Tunisia. The calendar 
that the Kabyle enact through improvisational embodied practices is not 
the same calendar that the anthropologist extracts in schematic form from 
data provided by informants. Whereas the anthropologists schema will 
show fields, houses, and calendars arranged according to such dualities as 
hot and cold, male and female, for the Kabyle this knowledge exists not as 
abstractions but as patterns of daily life learned by practicing actions until 
they become habitual. Abstraction thus not only affects how one describes 
learning but also changes the account of what is learned. 

Bourdieu s work illustrates how embodied knowledge can be structur- 
ally elaborate, conceptually 7 coherent, and durably installed without ever 
having to be cognitively recognized as such. Through observation and rep- 
etition, the child attains “a practical mastery of the classificatory schemes 
which in no way implies symbolic mastery.” By 7 transposing terms of sym- 
metry relations, the child is able to grasp the rationale of what Bourdieu 
calls the “habitus” (a word coined to recall the habitual nature of embodied 
actions), defined as the “durably installed generative principle of regu- 
lated improvisations.” 18 The habitus, which is learned, perpetuated, and 

The Materiality of Informatics / 203 

changed through embodied practices, should not be thought of as a collec- 
tion of rules but as a series of dispositions and inclinations that are both 
subject to circumstances and durable enough to pass down through gener- 
ations. The habitus is conveyed through the orientation and movement of 
the body as it traverses cultural spaces and experiences temporal rhythms. 
F or the Kabyle, the spatial arrangements of home, village, and field instan- 
tiate the dichotomies that serve as generative principles stimulating impro- 
visation within the regulated exchanges defined by the habitus. Living in 
these spaces and participating in their organization form the body in char- 
acteristic ways, which in turn provides a matrix of permutations for thought 
and action. 

To look at thought in this way is to turn Descartes upside down. The cen- 
tral premise is not that the cogitating mind can be certain only of its ability' 
to be present to itself but rather that the body exists in space and time and 
that, through its interaction with the environment, it defines the parame- 
ters within which the cogitating mind can arrive at “certainties,” which not 
coincidentally almost never include the fundamental homologies generat- 
ing the boundaries of thought. What counts as knowledge is also radically 
revised, for conscious thought becomes an epiphenomenon corresponding 
to the phenomenal base the body provides. 

In “Eye and Mind,” Merleau-Ponty articulates a vision similar to Bour- 
dieu’s when he states that the body is not “a chunk of space or a bundle of 
functions” but “an intertwining of vision and movement .” 19 Whereas the 
causal thinking that Descartes admired in geometry and sought to emulate 
in philosophy erases context by abstracting experience into generalized 
patterns, embodiment creates context by forging connections between in- 
stantiated action and environmental conditions. Marking a turn from 
foundation to flux, embodiment emphasizes the importance of context to 
human cognition. Here, in another key and a reverse direction, we see re- 
played the decontextualization that information underwent when it lost its 
body. Just as disembodiment required that context be erased, so remem- 
bering embodiment means that context be put back into the picture. 

When accounts of learning change, so do accounts of cultural transmis- 
sion. In Hotv Societies Remember, Paul Connerton links embodiment with 
memory. He points out that rituals, commemorative ceremonies, and other 
bodily practices have a performative aspect that an analysis of the content 
does not grasp. Like performative language, performative rituals must be 
enacted to take place. A liturgy, for example, “is an ordering of speech acts 
which occurs when, and only when, these utterances are performed; if 

204 / Chapter Eight 

there is no performance there is no ritual. ’’ Although liturgies are primarily 
verbal, they are not exclusively so. Gestures and movements accompany 
the words, in addition to the sense data created by speaking and hearing. 
Over and above (or better, below) the verbal aspects is the incorporation 
enacted through sensory responses, motor control, and proprioception. 
Because these ceremonies are embodied practices, to perform them is al- 
ways in some sense to accept them, whatever one’s conscious beliefs. “We 
may suppose the beliefs someone else holds sacred to be merely fantastic,” 
Connerton wrote, “but it can never be a light matter to demand that their 
actual expression be violated. ... To make patriots insult their flag or to 
force pagans to receive baptism is to violate them.” 20 

Bodily practices have this power because they sediment into habitual ac- 
tions and movements, sinking below conscious awareness. At this level they 
achieve an inertia that can prove surprisingly resistant to conscious inten- 
tions to modify or change them. By their nature, habits do not occupy con- 
scious thought; they are habitual precisely because they are done more or 
less automatically, as if the knowledge of how to perform the actions 
resided in one’s fingers or physical mobility' rather than in ones mind. This 
property of the habitual has political implications. When a new regime 
takes over, it attacks old habits vigorously, for this is where the most refrac- 
tory 7 resistance to change will be met. Bourdieu comments that all societies 
wanting to make a “new man” should approach the task through processes 
of “deculturation” and “reeulturation” focused on bodily practices. Hence 
revolutionaries place great emphasis “on the seemingly most insignificant 
details of dress, bearing, physical and verbal manners,” because “they en- 
trust to [the body] in abbreviated and practical, i.e., mnemonic, form the 
fundamental principles of the arbitrary content of the culture.” 21 

Bourdieu somewhat overstates the case when he asserts that “principles 
em-bodied in this way are placed beyond the grasp of consciousness and 
hence cannot be touched by voluntary 7 , deliberate transformation” (p. 94), 
but he is correct in emphasizing the resistance of such practices to intellec- 
tion. He also rightly sees the importance of these practices for education 
and discipline. “The whole trick of pedagogic reason,” he observes, “lies 
precisely in the way it extorts the essential while seeming to demand the in- 
significant: in obtaining the respect for form anti forms of respect which 
constitute the most visible and at the same time the best-hidden (because 
most ‘natural’) manifestation of submission to the established order. . . . 
The concession of politeness always contains political concessions” 
(pp. 94-95). Along similar lines, Connerton wrote: “Every 7 group will en- 
trust to bodily automatisms the values and categories which they are most 

The Materiality of Informatics / 205 

anxious to conserve. They will know how well the past can be kept in mind 
by a habitual memory sedimented in the body .” 22 

To summarize: four distinguishing characteristics of knowledge gained 
through incorporating practices have emerged from the discussion so far. 
First, incorporated knowledge retains improvisational elements that make 
it contextual rather than abstract, that keep it tied to the circumstances of 
its instantiation. Second, it is deeply sedimented into the body and is highly 
resistant to change. Third, incorporated knowledge is partly screened from 
conscious view because it is habitual. Fourth, because it is contextual, re- 
sistant to change, and obscure to the cogitating mind, it has the power to de- 
fine the boundaries within which conscious thought takes place. To these 
four characteristics I want to add a fifth. When changes in incorporating 
practices take place, they are often linked with new technologies that affect 
how people use their bodies and experience space and time. Formed by 
technology at the same time that it creates technology, embodiment medi- 
ates between technology and discourse by creating new experiential 
frameworks that serve as boundary markers for the creation of correspond- 
ing discursive systems. In the feedback loop between technological inno- 
vations and discursive practices, incorporation is a cnicial link. 

Having distinguished between incorporating and inscribing practices, I 
want to explore the connections between them. To complete the model I 
have been constructing, I turn now to Mark Johnson’s The Body in the 
Mind . 2,3 It is a truism in contemporary' theory' that discourse writes the 
body; Johnson illustrates how the body writes discourse. He shows that the 
body’s orientation in time and space, deriving from such common experi- 
ences as walking upright and finding a vertical stance more conducive to 
mobility than a horizontal position, creates a repository of experiences that 
are encoded into language through pervasive metaphoric networks. Con- 
sider, for example, metaphors having to do with verticality. We speak of 
someone being “upright” in a moral or ethical sense, of people “at the top,” 
and of “upscale” lifestyles. Depressing events are a “downer,” in a recession 
people are “down on their luck,” and entry-level people start at the “bot- 
tom of the ladder.” The hierarchical structures expressed and constituted 
through these metaphors, Johnson argues, have a basis in bodily experi- 
ence that reinforces and reinscribes their social and linguistic implications. 
Other common body' experiences giving rise to extensive metaphoric net- 
works include in/out, front/back, and contained/ uncontained. Johnson 
characterizes such schema as prepropositional. The point of his inquiry' is 
to show that these encoded experiences bubble up into language in propo- 
sitional statements, such as “He got high,” and in metapropositional state- 

2 o 6 / Chapter Eight 

ments having to do with the truth or goodness of propositions, such as “That 
statement expresses ahigher truth.” An obvious implication is that if we had 
bodies with significantly different physiological structures, for example ex- 
oskeletons rather than endoskeletons or unilateral rather than bilateral 
symmetries, the schema underlying pervasive metaphoric networks would 
also be radically altered. 

Of the theorists discussed here, Johnson launches perhaps the most se- 
vere attack on objectivism. Thus it is ironic that he reinscribes objectivist 
presuppositions in positing a universal body unmarked by gender, ethnic- 
ity, physical disability, or culture. Insisting that the body is an important 
part of the context from which language emerges, he erases the specific 
contexts provided by embodiment. The consequences of this erasure can 
be seen in his discussion of a passage from Men on Rape in which a law clerk 
tells why rape is, in his view, sometimes justified. Johnson shows that the 
clerk s reasoning is based on a series of interrelated propositions that begin 
with the idea that “physical attraction is a physical force.” The clerk con- 
structs a woman s physical attractiveness as an aggression that she practices 
on men and to which they sometimes respond with (allegedly retaliatory') 

In some ways Johnson s analysis is remarkably astute, for it reveals how 
gendered experiences of embodiment get encoded into implicit proposi- 
tions. Yet with stunning reticence, he never remarks on the gender politics 
so obviously foregrounded by this series of propositions, treating the exam- 
ple as if it were sexually and culturally neutral. More than one graduate stu- 
dent whom I have asked to read Johnson s book has thrown it down in 
disgust at this point, assuming that any analysis so gender-blind could have 
nothing significant to say to her. Although I sympathize with the reaction, it 
is a mistake, for the general point that embodiment is encoded into lan- 
guage through metaphoric networks is strengthened rather than undercut 
by insisting on the specificities of physically diverse and differentially 
marked bodies. Just as I can imagine that schema would vary' for different 
physiologies, so I can envision that metaphors would vary in response to dif- 
ferent experiences of embodiment created by historically positioned and 
culturally constructed bodies. From such considerations emerges an en- 
riched appreciation of how inscribing and incorporating practices work to- 
gether to create the heterogeneous spaces of postmodern technologies and 

Although Johnson does not develop this implication, his analysis sug- 
gests that when people begin using their bodies in significantly different 
ways, either because of technological innovations or other cultural shifts, 

The Materiality of Informatics / 20 7 

changing experiences of embodiment bubble up into language, affecting 
the metaphoric networks at play within the culture. At the same time, dis- 
cursive constructions affect how bodies mov e through space and time, in- 
fluence what technologies are developed, and help to structure the 
interfaces between bodies and technologies. By concentrating on a period 
when a new technology comes into being and is diffusing throughout the 
culture, one should be able to triangulate between incorporation, inscrip- 
tion, and technological materiality to arrive at a fuller description ol these 
feedback loops than discursive analysis alone would yield. To develop such 
an analysis, I concentrate in the following section on an information tech- 
nology appropriate to the era under discussion, specifically the use of mag- 
netic tape-recording from the early 1900s to 1962, the year Burroughs 
published The Ticket That Exploded, Chapters 9 and 1 0 continue the analy- 
sis into an array of contemporary' virtual technologies. Let us now return to 
an earlier period, when it was a startling discovery to learn that one’s voice 
could be taken out of the body and put into a machine, where it could be 
manipulated to say something that the speaker had never heard before. 

Audiotape and Its Cultural Niche 

In his groundbreaking work Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext, 
Garrett Stewart asks not how we read, or why we read, but where we read. 24 
He decides we read in the body, particularly in the vocal apparatus that pro- 
duces subvocalization during silent reading. This subvocalization is essen- 
tial, he argues, to the production of literary language. Language becomes 
literary 7 for Stewart when it cannot be adequately replaced by other words, 
when that particular language is essential to achieving its effects. Literary- 
language works by surrounding its utterances with a shimmer of virtual 
sounds, homophonie variants that suggest alternative readings to the words 
actually printed on the page. Subvocalization actualizes these possibilities 
in the body 7 and makes them available for interpretation. Several interest- 
ing consequences flow from this argument. First, the bodily enactment of 
suppressed sound plays a central role in the reading process. Second, read- 
ing is akin to the interior monologue that we all engage in, except that it sup- 
plies us with another story, usually a more interesting one than that 
provided by the stream of subvocalized sound coming out of our own con- 
sciousness. Third, the production of subvocalized sound may be as impor- 
tant to subjectivity as it is to literary 7 language. 25 

We are nowin a position to think about what tape-recording means for 
certain literary texts. Audiotape opens the possibility 7 that the voice can be 

208 / Chapter Eight 

taken out of the body and placed into a machine. If the production of sub- 
vocalized sound is essential to reading literary texts, what happens to the 
stories we tell ourselves if this sound is no longer situated in the body’s sub- 
vocalizations but is in the machine? Often histories of technology and liter- 
ature treat technology as a theme or subject to be represented within the 
world of the text. I want to take a different approach, focusing on the tech- 
nical qualities of audiotape that changed the relation of voice and body, a 
change Burroughs associates in Ticket with the production of a new kind of 
subjectivity. In the mutating and metamorphosing bodies of Ticket, we can 
see a harbinger of the posthuman body that will be fully articulated in the 
following chapters. These mutations are intimately bound up with internal 
monologues that, in Burroughs’s view, parasitically inhabit the body. But I 
am getting ahead of my story. First we need to trace the development of the 
audio technology that he uses to effect this startling view of discourse as a 
bodily infestation. 

Born in the early 1900s and coming of age after World War II, audiotape 
may already be reaching old age, fading from the marketplace as it is re- 
placed by compact disks, computer hypermedia, and the like. The period 
when audiotape played an important role in U.S. and European consumer 
culture may well be limited to the four decades of 1950-90. Writing his 
cybernetic trilogy — The Ticket That Exploded, The Soft Machine, and 
Nova Express — in the late 1950s and 1960s, William Burroughs was close 
enough to the beginnings of audiotape to regard it as a technology of revo- 
lutionary power. Long after writing dissociated presence from inscription, 
voice continued to imply a subject who was present in the moment and in 
the flesh. Audiotape was of course not the first technology to challenge this 
assumption, and the cultural work it did can best be understood in the con- 
text of related audio technologies, particularly telephone, radio, and 

Telephone and radio broke the link between presence and voice by mak- 
ing it possible to transport voice over distance. 26 Before audiotape and 
phonograph, however, telephone and radio happened in the present. 
Speaker and listener, although physically separated, had to share the same 
moment in time. Telephone and radio thus continued to participate in the 
phenomenology of presence through the simultaneity that they produced 
and that produced them . In this sense they were more like each odier than 
either was like the phonograph. By contrast, the phonograph functioned 
primarily as a technology of inscription, reproducing sound through a rigid 
disk that allowed neither the interactive spontaneity of telephone nor the 
ephemerality of radio. 

The Materiality of Informatics / 209 

The niche that audiotape filled was configured through the interlocking 
qualities of the audio technologies that preceded it, in a process Friedrich 
Kittler has aptly called “medial ecology” (discussed briefly in chapter 2). 2 ' 
Like the phonograph, audiotape was a technology of inscription, but with 
the crucial difference that it permitted erasure and rewriting. As early as 
1888, Oberlin Smith, at one time president of the American Society of Me- 
chanical Engineers, proposed that sound could be recorded by magnetiz- 
ing iron particles that adhered to a carrier. 28 He was too busy to implement 
his idea, however, and the ball passed to Valdemar Poulsen, a young Danish 
engineer who accidentally discovered that patterns traced on the side of a 
magnetized tuning fork became visible w'hen the fork was dipped in iron 
powder. When the fork was demagnetized, the patterns were erased. He 
saw in the imprinting and erasure of these patterns the possibility of a 
recording device for sound, using iron wire as the carrier. Its immediate 
commercial use, he imagined, would lie in providing tangible records ol 
telephone conversations. He called the device a “Telegraphone,” which he 
understood to signify “writing the voice at a di stance. ” At the 1 900 Paris Ex- 
position, he won the Grand Prix for his invention. 29 Despite extensive pub- 
licity, however, he was not able to raise the necessary capital in Europe for 
its development. By 1903 the patents had passed to the American Tele- 
graphone Company (ATC), which raised a huge amount of money 
($5,000,000) by selling stock. Five years later the owners of ATC had still 
not built a single machine. Their main business, in fact, turned out to be 
raising money for the machines rather than actually producing the ma- 
chines. When they did finally turn out a few operational devices in 1911, 
using the famous model Phoebe Snow to advertise them as dictation ma- 
chines, the sound quality was so bad that the Dupont Company, after in- 
stalling them in a central dictation System, ended up suing. The 
questionable status of the machines was exacerbated during World War I, 
when the Telefunken Company of America was accused of using them to 
encode and transmit secret messages to Germany. F rom the beginning, au- 
diotape was marked with the imprint of international capitalism and poli- 
tics as surely as it was with the imprint of voices. 

By 1932, steel tape had become the carrier of choice in high-end ma- 
chines, and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) became actively 
interested in the development of steel tape, using it to carry the Christmas 
address of King George V in that year. Film tape, created by coating paper 
or plastic tape with iron oxide and feeding it through a ring-shaped head, 
appeared on the scene by 1935. 30 The great advantage of film tape was that 
it could be easily spliced, but originally it had such poor sound quality that 

2 /o / Chapter Eight 

it could not compete with steel tape. The problem of establishing good cor- 
respondence between sound frequency and the pattern on film tape (that 
is, controlling hysteresis) was partly solved by the introduction of high- 
frequency bias in 1938. 31 By 1941 the sound quality of film tape had so 
improved that it was competitive with steel tape in studio work. On the con- 
sumer market, machines with wire were still common. It was not until after 
World War II that systematic research was carried out to find the optimum 
coating material for film tape, and only in 1948 was the first American 
patent issued for a magnetic recording machine using film tape and a ring 
head. The use of film tape then expanded rapidly, and within a decade it had 
rendered steel tape obsolete, with film tape being used in the consumer 
market as well as the professional studios. 

By the late 1950s, then, magnetic tape had acquired the qualities that, 
within the existing cultural formation, gave it the force of paradox. It was a 
mode of voice inscription at once permanent and mutable, repeating past 
moments exactly yet also permitting present interventions that radically al- 
tered its form and meaning. These interventions could, moreover, be done 
at home by anyone who had the appropriate equipment. Whereas the 
phonograph produced objects that could be consumed only in their manu- 
factured form, magnetic tape allowed the consumer to be a producer as 
well. The switches activating the powerful and paradoxical technoconcep- 
tual actors of repetition and mutation, presence and absence, were in the 
hands of the masses, at least the masses who could afford the equipment. 

The paradoxical qualities that magnetic tape was perceived to have in 
the late 1950s were forcefully expressed by Roy Walker, involved in making 
tape-recordings for the BBC during this period. “Anyone who has made a 
BBC recording and been in on the editing session may emerge feeling that 
he can no longer call himself his own. Cuts and transpositions can be and 
are made. Halves of sentences spoken at different times can be amalga- 
mated to let a speaker hear himself say the opposite of what he knows he 
said. Hearing oneself say something and continue with something else said 
half an hour earlier can be peculiarly disconcerting. You might have the 
feeling that if you went quickly out of the studio you might catch yourself 
coming in.” 32 His language locates the disconcerting effect both in the time 
delay (“sentences spoken at different times can be amalgamated”) and in 
the disjunction between voice and presence (“he can no longer call himself 
his own”). When these qualities of audiotape were enacted within literary' 
productions, a complex interplay was set up between representational 
codes and the specificities of the technology'. When voice was displaced 
onto tape, the body metonymically participated in the transformations that 

The Materiality of Informatics / 211 

voice underwent in this medium. For certain texts after 1950, the body be- 
came a tape-recorder. 

When Burroughs wrote The Ticket That Exploded , he took seriously the 
possibilities for the metonymic equation between tape-recorder and 
body. 33 He reasoned that if the body can become a tape-recorder, the voice 
can be understood not as a naturalized union of voice and presence but as a 
mechanical production with the frightening ability to appropriate the 
body’s vocal apparatus and use it for ends alien to the self. “The word is now 
a cams” ( TTE , p, 49), the narrator says in a phrase indebted to the Buddhist- 
inspired idea that ones sense of selfhood is maintained through an internal 
monologue, which is nothing other than the story die self tells to assure it- 
self that it exists. 34 Woven into this monologue are the fictions that society 
wants its members to believe; the monologue enacts self-discipline as well 
as self-creation. Burroughs proposes to stop the interior monologue by 
making it external and mechanical, recording it on tape and subjecting the 
recording to various manipulations. “Communication must become total 
and conscious before we can stop it,” the narrator asserts (TTE, p. 51). Yet 
splicing tape is far from innocuous. Once someone’s vocalizations and body 
sounds are spliced into someone else’s, the effects can feed back into the 
bodies, setting off a riot of mutations. The tape-recorder acts both as 
a metaphor for these mutations and as the instrumentality that brings 
them about. The taped body can separate at the vertical “divide line,” 
grotesquely becoming half one person and half another, as if it were tape 
spliced lengthwise. In a disturbingly literal sense, the tape-recorder be- 
comes a two-edged sword, cutting through bodies as well as through the 
programs that control and discipline them. 

In The Ticket That Exploded, the body is a site for contestation and 
resistance on many levels, as metaphor, as physical reality, as linguistic con- 
struct, and last but hardly least, as tape-recorder. The tape-recorder is cen- 
tral to understanding Burroughs’s vision of how the politics of co-optation 
work. Entwined into human flesh are “pre-recordings” that function as 
parasites ready to take over the organism. These “pre-recordings” may be 
thought of as social conditioning, for example an “American upper middle- 
class upbringing with maximum sexual frustration and humiliations 
imposed by Middle-Western matriarchs” (TTE, p. 139), which not coinci- 
dentally matches Burroughs’s own experience. A strong sense of sexual 
nausea pervades the text, and sexuality is another manifestation of prere- 
cording. Parodically rewriting the fable in Plato’s Symposium about the 
spherical beings who were cut in half to make humans, the narrator asserts; 
“All human sex is this unsanitary arrangement whereby two entities at- 

2)2 / Chapter Eight 

tempt to occupy the same three-dimensional coordinate points giving rise 
to the sordid latrine brawls. . . . Itwill be readily understandable that a pro- 
gram of systematic frustration was necessary in order to sell this crock of 
sewage as Immortality, and Garden of Delights, and love” ( TTE , p. 52). 

The idea of two entities trying to occupy the same space is further rein- 
forced by the vertical “divide line” crossing the body, the physically marked 
line in bone, muscle, and skin where the neural canal of the month-old fe- 
tus closes to create the beginnings of the torso. 35 The early point at which 
the “divide line” is imprinted on human flesh suggests how deeply impli- 
cated into the organism are the prerecordings that socialize it into commu- 
nity norms. In one scene the narrator sees his body “on the operating table 
split down the middle,” while a “doctor with forceps was extracting crab 
parasites from his brain and spine — and squeezing green fish parasites 
from the separated flesh.” “My God what a mess,” the doctor exclaims. 
“The difficulty is with two halves — other parasites will invade sooner or 
later. . . .Sew him up nurse” (TTE, p. 85). As the doctor intimates, the body 
is always already fallen. Divided within itself rather than an organic unity, it 
is subject to occupation and expropriation by a variety of parasitic forms, 
both cultural and physical. 

Chief among these parasitic forms is “the word.” It is a truism in con- 
temporary theory that discursive formations can have material effects in 
the physical w'orld. Without having read Foucault and Derrida, Burroughs 
came to similar conclusions a decade earlier, imagining “the word” as the 
body’s “Other Half.” The narrator stated: “Word is an organism. The pres- 
ence of the ‘Other Half’ a separate organism attached to your nervous sys- 
tem on an air line of words can now be demonstrated experimentally” The 
experiments to which the narrator alludes were performed by, among oth- 
ers, John Cunningham Lilly, who in the late 1950s and 1960s used isolation 
tanks to test the malleability of human perception 36 The experiments re- 
quired subjects to enter a dark tank and to float, cut off from all sensory in- 
put, in water kept at body temperature. The narrator mentions that a 
common “hallucination” of subjects in sense withdrawal was “the feeling of 
another body sprawled through the subject’s body at an angle” ( TTE p. 49). 
“Yes quite an angle,” the narrator ironically remarks, identifying the sen- 
sation as the subject’s perception of his “other half,”’ the w'ord virus that 
invades the organism until it seems as intrinsic to the body as flesh and 

For the narrator, the proof of this parasitic invasion and infection is the 
interior monologue w ? e all experience. “Modem man has lost the option of 
silence,” he asserts. “Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You 

The Materiality of Informatics / 2/3 

will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is 
the word” ( TTE , pp, 49-50). Burroughs’s project is to offer the reader as 
many ways as he can imagine to stop the monologue, to rewrite or erase the 
“pre-recordings,” and to extricate the subject from the parasitic invasion of 
the “Other Half.” Tape-recorders are central to this project; “it’s all done 
with tape recorders,” the narrator comments (TTE, p. 162). One strategy' is 
to “externalize dialogue” by getting “it out of your head and into the ma- 
chines” (TTE, p. 163). He suggests that the reader record the last argument 
the reader had with a boyfriend or girlfriend, putting the readers side of the 
argument on one recorder and the friend’s side on the other. Then the two 
recorders can argue with each other, leaving the human participants free to 
stop replaying the conversation in their heads and get on with their lives. 
The narrator also suggests recording random sounds on a third machine — 
snippets from a new's broadcast, say — and mixing them in too. The intru- 
sion of the random element is significant; it aims to break the reader not 
only out of personal obsessions but also out of the surrounding, culturally 
constructed envelope of sounds and words. “Wittgenstein said: ‘No propo- 
sition can contain itself as an argument,’” the narrator remarks, interpret- 
ing this as follows: “The only' thing not prerecorded in a prerecorded 
universe is the prerecording itself which is to say any recording that con- 
tains a random factor” (TTE, p. 166). 

The intrusion of randomness is important in another way as well, for 
Burroughs is acutely aware of the danger that he might, through his words, 
spread the viral infection he is trying to combat. It is important, therefore, 
that disruptive techniques be instantiated within the text’s own language. 
These techniques range from his famous use of the “cut-up,” where he 
physically cuts up previously written narratives and arbitrarily splices them 
together, to more subtle methods such as shifting between different lin- 
guistic registers without transition or explanation. 37 Perhaps the single 
most important device is the insistent pressure to take metaphors 
literally — or put another way, to erase the distinction between words and 
things. Language is not merely like a virus; it is a virus, replicating through 
the host to become visible as green fish in the flesh and crab parasites tear- 
ing at the base of the spine and brain. In Burroughs, the material effects of 
language do not need to be mediated through physical discipline to re-form 
the body, for example through the prescribed postures and gestures used to 
teach penmanship in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With a 
writer’s license, he makes language erupt directly into the body'. The body 
itself, moreover, is treated as if it physically were a recorder, regulated by 
the principles that govern magnetic tape in its reproduction, erasure, and 

/ Chapter Eight 

reconfiguration. Here, within the represented world of the text, tech- 
niques of inscription merge with incorporated practices in a cyborg config- 
uration of explosive potential. The double edge of this potential is not 
difficult to understand, for the reifying and infective power of words can be 
defused only through other words, which can always turn against their mas- 
ter and become infectious in turn. Making the word flesh is both how the 
virus infects and how the vaccine disinfects . In either case, the flesh will not 
continue unchanged. 

The pressure toward literalization can be seen in the narrative sections 
that use the conventions of science fiction to figure the invasion of the word 
as a physical operation (early on the narrator announces, “I am reading a 
science fiction book called The Ticket That Exploded” [TTE, p. 5]). On this 
track, Earth has been invaded by the alien Nova mob, so-called because 
their strategy is to drive the planet to extreme chaos or “nova.” The mob in- 
cludes such creatures as heavy- metal addicts from Uranus, sex addicts 
from Venus, and other parasitic organisms that can occupy human flesh. 
“Nova criminals are not three-dimensional organisms — (though they are 
quite definite organisms as we shall see) — but they need three-dimen- 
sional human agents to operate” (TTE, p. 57). A single parasitic alien can 
take over hundreds of humans, stringing together its hosts to form rows of 
“coordinate points,” analogous to lines of print or to phonemes subordi- 
nated through grammar and syntax. The reputed leader of the mob is an ap- 
propriately bimorphic creature called variously “Mr Bradly Mr Martin,” 
“Mr and Mrs D,” or simply “the Ugly spirit.” In this instantiation of the 
“Other Half,” the word itself is split down the middle. 

A counterinvasion has been staged by the Nova police, whose weapons 
include radio static, “camera guns” that destabilize images by vibrating 
them at supersonic speeds, and of course tape-recorders. Recruiting “Mr. 
Lee” (this pseudonym used often by Burroughs was his mothers maiden 
name), the district supervisor tells Mr. Lee that he will receive his instruc- 
tions “from books, street signs, films, in some cases from agents who pur- 
port to be and may actually be members of the organization. There is no 
certainty. Those who need certainty are of no interest to this department. 
This is in point of fact a non-organization the aim of which is to immunize 
our agents against fear despair and death. We intend to break the birth- 
death cycle” (TTE, p. 10). One of the criminals the department seeks is 
Johnny' Yen, whose name suggests sexual desire. “Death is orgasm is rebirth 
is death in orgasm is their unsanitary' Venusian gimmick is the whole birth 
death cycle of action,” the narrator explains. He proceeds, apparently exas- 
perated, to make his point even more obvious. “You got it? — Now do you 

The Materiality of Informatics / 215 

understand who Johnny Yen is? — The Boy-Girl Other Half strip tease God 
of sexual frustration — Errand boy from the death trauma” ( TTE , p. 53). 

On this track, the action can be read as a physical contest between the 
Nova mob and the Nova police, as when a police operative from Minraud 
blows a mob crab guard into smithereens. But if the word is a parasite with 
material effects, the distinction between metaphor and actuality, represen- 
tation and reality, is moot. Thus another strategy of resistance is the 
“Rewrite Room,” the space from which comes the expose of Johnny Yen 
cited above. Johnny Yen is not blown away but rather is rewritten to become 
a rather enchanting green fish box’, an amphibious life-form (a benign bi- 
morphic creature) living in the canals and mating with Ali the street boy in 
a nonhuman life cycle that destabilizes the human sense of what constitutes 
the body, life, and death. The crisis of mutation, the recognition that pat- 
tern is always already penetrated by randomness, is here associated with a 
form of embodiment that moves through a lroth of noise as easily as a fish 
through water. 

For human subjects, however, this destabilization is bound to be threat- 
ening rather than simply liberating, for the narrative attempts to put into 
play all the boundaries that define human subjectivity. Body boundaries are 
often literally disintegrated, for example by the Sex Skin, an organism that 
surrounds its victims with a second skin that gives its victims intense sexual 
pleasure while dissolving and ingesting them. Positioned against the clear 
threat of this kind of sexual delirium are tape- recorders, potentially liberat- 
ing but also not without danger. Recording one’s body sounds and splicing 
them into someone else s can free one from the illusion that body sounds 
cannot exist apart from the interior monologue. But just as Burroughs’s 
words can become parasitic if not self-disrupted, so these sounds have the 
potential to constitute a parasitic monologue in turn . According to the nar- 
rator, the splicing produces a strong erotic reaction. If it is expressed in ac- 
tual sexual contact “it acts as an aphrodisiac . . .nothingmore. . . .Butwhen 
a susceptible subject is spliced in with someone who is not there then it acts 
as a destructive virus,” ironically becoming the phenomenon it was meant 
to counteract (TTE, p. 20). 

As well as disrupting words audibly present, Burroughs wants to create — 
or expose — new ones from the substrata of the medium itself. He de- 
scribes experiments based on “inching tape,” manually rubbing the tape 
back and forth across the head at varying speeds. “Such exercises bring you 
a liberation from old association locks . . . you will hear words that were not 
in the original recording new words made by the machine different people 
will scan out different words of course but some of the words are quite 

2)6 / Chapter Eight 

clearly there.” The technique gives new meaning to Marshall McLuhan’s 
aphorism “The medium is the message,” for it is “as if the words themselves 
had been interrogated and forced to reveal their hidden meanings it is in- 
teresting to record these words literally made by the machine itself” ( TTE , 
p. 206). Here Burroughs envisions incorporating practices that can pro- 
duce inscriptions without the mediation of consciousness. 

He actually performed the tape-recorder experiments he describes 
from the late 1950s through the late 1970s. He inched tape to create, as he 
heard it, new words; he recorded radio broadcasts and spliced the tape to 
achieve an aural “cut-up”; and he held the microphone to the base of his 
throat and tried to record his own subvocal speech. As if anticipating Chris- 
tian fundamentalists who hear Satanic messages hidden in records and 
tapes (people whose sensibilities he would no doubt enjoy outraging), he 
also read from his books, including The Nova Express and The Ticket That 
Exploded, and spliced the readings in with music played backward. The 
recordings have been preserved, and some of this archival material has 
been collected in a phonograph album entitled “Nothing Here Now but 
the Recordings . ” 38 Late one night I traveled to the music library at the Uni- 
versity of California at San Diego to listen to the album. Even though the 
experience of sitting in the nearly deserted high-tech facility, insulated 
from exterior sound, was eerily conducive to hearing the words that 
Burroughs claims are there, some of the passages are clearly of historic in- 
terest only. In particular, the section that records subvocal speech is virtu- 
ally unintelligible as patterned sound. Perhaps paradoxically, I found the 
recording less forceful as a demonstration of Burroughs’s theories than his 
writing. For me, the aurality of his prose elicits a greater response than the 
machine productions it describes and instantiates. 

The power of that writing is evident in the “writing machine” section of 
The Ticket That Exploded. The narrator describes an “Exhibition,” which 
includes “a room with metal walls magnetic mobiles under flickering blue 
light and smell of ozone” (TTE, p. 62). The room is situated, of course, in- 
side a tape-recorder. Normally, narrative fiction leaps over the technolo- 
gies (printing press, paper, ink) that produce it and represents the external 
world as if this act of representation did not require a material basis for its 
production. Burroughs turns this convention inside out, locating the “ex- 
ternal” world inside the technological artifact. The move constructs a com- 
pletely different relation between fiction and the material means of its 
production, constituting the technology as the ground out of which the nar- 
rative action evolves. This technique hints that the technology is not merely 
a medium to represent thoughts that already exist but is itself capable of dy- 

The Materiality of Informatics / 2\j 

namic interactions producing the thoughts it describes. At issue, then, is 
the technology not only as a theme but as an articulation capable of pro- 
ducing new kinds of subjectivities. 

The tape-recording qualities important in the Exhibition are the twin 
and somewhat contradictory powers of inscription and mutation. Unlike 
marks on paper, this writing can easily be erased and rewritten in other 
forms. As spectators clink through turnstiles of the Exhibition, “great 
sheets of magnetized print held color and disintegrated in cold mineral si- 
lence as word dust falls from demagnetized patterns" ( TTE , p. 62). The de- 
scription points to the attraction the recorder has for Burroughs. Sound, 
unlike print, dies away unless it is constantly renewed. Its ephemerality 
calls forth a double response that finds material expression in the teehnol- 
ogy. On the one hand, magnetic tape allows sound to be preserved over 
time; in this respect it counters the ephemerality of sound by transforming 
it into inscription. On the other hand, inscriptions can be easily erased and 
reconfigured; in this sense, it reproduces the impermanence of sound. 
Burroughs was drawn to both aspects of the technology. The inscription of 
sound in a durable medium suited his belief that the word is material, 
whereas the malleability 7 of sound meant that interventions were possible, 
interventions that could radically change or eradicate the record. 

At the Exhibition, language is inscribed through “word dust” that falls 
from the walls as pervasively as smog particles from the Los Angeles sky. 
Anticipating videotape. Burroughs imagines that “picture dust” also falls 
from the walls. “Photomontage fragments backed with iron stuck to pat- 
terns and fell in swirls mixing with color dust to form new patterns, shim- 
mering, falling, magnetized, demagnetized to the flicker of blue cylinders 
pulsing neon tubes and globes” (TTE, pp. 62-63). When the Nova police 
eounterinvade the planet, “falling” phrases repeatedly appear, as if they 
were news bulletins read over and over on the radio: “Word falling — Photo 
falling — Time falling — Break through in Grey Room”; “Shift linguals — 
Cut word lines — Vibrate tourists — Free Doorways — Pinball led streets — 
Word falling — Photo falling — Break through in Grey Room — Towers, 
open fire” (TTE, p. 104); “cut all tape”; “Break through in Grey Room — 
‘Love’ is falling — Sex word is falling — Break photograph — Shift body 
halves” (TTE, p. 1 05). The “Grey Room” evidently refers to the mob’s com- 
munication and control center, perhaps the “board room” where, the nar- 
rator tells us, multinationals plot to take over outer and inner space. 

In opposition to the linear centralized control of the “Grey Room” is the 
chaotic recursivity of the Exhibition. Here there is no clear line between 
those who act and those who are acted upon. The traffic flow through the 

2 1 8 / Chapter Eight 

room is structured like a recursive loop. As the spectators pass, they are 
recorded “by a batteiy of tape-recorders recording and playing back mov- 
ing on conveyor belts and tracks and cable cars spilling the talk and metal 
music fountains and speech as the recorders moved from one exhibit to an- 
other.” The narrator remarks parenthetically, “Since the recorders and 
movies of the exhibition are in constant operation it will be readily seen that 
any spectator appears on the screen sooner or later if not today then yester- 
day or tomorrow” ( TTE , p. 64). Thus spectators move along within the 
room , hearing and watching recordings of themselves as the recordings are 
played back from machines that are also moving along a conveyor belt. 
Their reactions as they hear and watch are also recorded in turn by other 
machines, creating an infinite regress in which body and tape, recording 
and voice, image and sight, endlessly reproduce each other. Within this 
world, it makes a weird kind of sense for bodies to mutate as easily as spliced 
tape, for the distinction between reality and representation has been 
largely deconstructed. “Characters walk in and out of screen flickering dif- 
ferent films on and off’ (TTE, p. 64); bodies split in half lengthwise; screens 
show two films simultaneously, half of one on one side, half of the other on 
the other side; a writing machine “shifts one half one text and half the other 
through a page frame on conveyor belts” (TTE, p. 65). Inscriptions, bodies, 
sounds, and images all follow the same dynamics and the same logic of 
splices running lengthwise to create mutated posthuman forms that both 
express and strive to escape from the conditioning that makes them into 
split beings. 

In a wonderfully oxymoronic phrase, Burroughs calls the place where 
culture produces its replicating sound and image tracks the “reality studio.” 
“Clearly no portentous exciting events are about to transpire,” the narrator 
says, implicitly mocking the melodrama of his own space-alien track. “You 
wall readily understand why people will go to any lengths to get in the film to 
cover themselves with any old film scrap . . . anything to avoid the hopeless 
dead-end horror of being just who and where you all are: dying animals on 
a doomed planet.” Connecting capitalist financing with cultural produc- 
tions (as if remembering the American Telegraphone Company), he con- 
tinues: “The film stock issued now isn’t worth the celluloid its [sic] printed 
on. There is nothing to back it up. The film bank is empty. To conceal the 
bankruptcy of the reality studio it is essential that no one should be in posi- 
tion to set up another reality set. . . . Work for the reality studio or else. Or 
else you will find out how it feels to b e outside the film” (TTE, p. 151). 

As the text draws to a close, the narrator directs the reader’s attention to 
the possibility that the reality studio may indeed be closing down and that 

The Materiality of Informatics / 219 

the reader will therefore shortly be outside the film, off the recording. A 
similar message is given in a different medium, when at the end of the 
penultimate section, the print of the text is disrupted by several lines of cur- 
sive script, English alternating with Arabic. Each line runs through a per- 
mutation of “To say good by silence,” with tire lines gradually becoming 
more random and indecipherable as they proceed down the page (TTE, 
p. 203) Perhaps Burroughs is trying to prepare the reader for the panic that 
sets in when the interior monologue is disrupted and, for the first time in 
one’s life, one hears silence instead of language. For whatever reason, he 
takes extraordinary care to achieve a feeling of closure unusual in his works 
from this period. Compared with Naked Lunch, the ending here is formally 
elaborate and thematically conclusive. 

Echoing The Tempest, the text as it winds down splices in dialogue from 
Shakespeare’s play with visions of contemporary technologies, “i foretold 
you were all spirits watching TV program — Terminal electric voices end — 
These our actors cut in — A few seconds later you are melted into air — Rub 
out promised by our ever-living poet — Mr Bradly Mr Martin, five times 
our summons — no shelter in setting forth” (TTE, p. 174). The splices invite 
the reader to tease out resonances between the two works. Whereas insect 
imagery predominates in Naked Lunch, in Ticket the usual form of nonhu- 
man life is aquatic or amphibian, recalling Caliban’s characterization as a 
“fishy monster.” Prospero conjures spirits from the air, and yet his magic 
has a terrible materiality; he can, we are told, raise bodies from the dead. 
Most of all he is a supreme technician, blending illusion with reality so skill- 
fully that his art can effect changes in the real world. Burroughs aims for 
nothing less, using language to disrupt the viral power of the word, creating 
recordings to stop the playbacks that imprison our future in the sounds of 
our past. If the tape-recorder is, as Paul Bowles called it, “God’s little toy,” 
The Ticket That Exploded is the tape that reveals this god-machine’s life- 
transforming possibilities (Bowles quoted in TTE, p. 166). 

“What we see is dictated by what we hear,” the narrator of Ticket asserts 
(TTE, p. 168). There is considerable anecdotal evidence to support his 
claim. Whereas sight is always focused, sharp, and delineated, sound en- 
velopes the body, as if it were an atmosphere to be experienced rather than 
an object to be dissected. Perhaps that is why researchers in virtual reality 
have found that sound is much more effective than sight in imparting emo- 
tional tonalities to their simulated worlds. 39 Their experiences suggest that 
voice is associated with presence not only because it comes from within 
the body but also because it conveys new information about the subject, 
information that goes deeper than analytical thought or conscious intcn- 

220 / Chapter Eight 

tion. Manipulating sound through tape-recorders thus becomes a way 
of producing a new kind of subjectivity that strikes at the deepest levels of 
awareness. If we were to trace the trajectory suggested here to the end 
of the period when audiotape held sway it would lead to texts such as C. J. 
Cherryh’s Cyteen trilogy, where the body has become a corporate product 
molded by “taking tape,” that is, listening to conditioning tapes that lay the 
foundation for the subject’s “psychset.” Burroughs anticipates Cherryhs 
implication that the voice issuing from the tape-recorder sounds finally not 
so much postmodern as it does posthuman. 

Where hope exists in Ticket, it appears as posthuman mutations like the 
fish boy, whose fluidity perhaps figures a type of subjectivity attuned to the 
froth of noise rather than the stability of a false self, living an embodied life 
beyond human consciousness as we knowit. But this is mere conjecture, for 
any representation of the internal life of the fish boy could be done only in 
words, which would infect and destroy exactly the transformation they 
were attempting to describe. F or Burroughs, the emphasis remains on sub- 
version and disruption rather than creative rearticulation. Even subversion 
risks being co-opted and taken over by the viral word; it can succeed only by 
continuing to disrupt everything, including its own prior writing. 

In this chapter, I have been concerned with Burroughs ’s fictions not only 
as harbingers of the posthuman but, more immediately, as sites where 
body/embodiment and inscription/incorporation are in constant and 
dynamic interplay with one another. As we have seen, in the Exhibition, 
inscriptions fall from the walls to become corporeal “word dust”; incorpo- 
rations are transformed into inscriptions through video- and audio-record- 
ing devices; bodies understood as normative and essentialized entities are 
rewiitten to become particularized experiences of embodiment; and em- 
bodied experience is transformed, through the inscriptions of the tape- 
recording, back into essentialized manifestations of “the word.” The 
recursivities that entangle inscription with incorporation, the body with 
embodiment, invite us to see these polarities not as static concepts but as 
mutating surfaces that transform into one another, much like the Mobius 
strip that Grosz imagines for her “volatile bodies.” Starting from a model 
emphasizing polarities , then, we have moved toward a vision of interactions 
both pleasurable and dangerous, creatively dynamic and explosively trans- 

It is no accident that recursive loops and reflexive strategies figure im- 
portantly in these transformations, for Burroughs shared with Humberto 
Maturana and Philip K, Dick an appreciation for how potently reflexivity 
can destabilize objectivist assumptions. Whereas Maturana located reflex- 

The Materiality of I n f o r m a t i c s / 221 

ivity in biological processes and Dick placed it in psychological dynamics. 
Burroughs located it in a cybernetic fusion of language and technology. 
Mutating into and out of the tape-recorder, the viral word reconfigures the 
tape-recorder as a cybernetic techno logy capable of radically transforming 
bodies and subjectivities. As for the “external” world, where clear divisions 
separate observer from system, human from technological artifact, Matu- 
rana, Dick, and Burroughs agreed (although for different reasons) that 
there is no there there. Whatever the limitations of their works, they shared 
a realization that the observer cannot stand apart from the systems being 
observed. In exploring how to integrate observer and world into a unified 
field of interaction, they also realized that liberal humanism could not con- 
tinue to hold sway. Just as the tide of posthumanism that Norbert Wiener 
had struggled to contain could not be held back, neither could the techno- 
logical advances in informatics, advances that would soon displace second- 
wave issues with third-wave concerns. 

Chapter Nine 


In contrast to the circular processes of Humberto Maturana’s autopoiesis, 
the figure most apt to describe the third wave is a spiral. Whereas the sec- 
ond wave is characterized by an attempt to include the observer in an ac- 
count of the system s functioning, in the third wave the emphasis falls on 
getting the system to evolve in new directions. Self-organization is no 
longer enough. The third wave wants to impart an upward tension to the re- 
cursive loops of self-organizing processes so that, like a spring compressed 
and suddenly released, the processes break out of the pattern of circular 
self-organization and leap outward into the new. 

Just as Heinz von Foerster served as a transition figure between the first 
and second waves, so Francisco Varela bridges the transition between the 
second and third waves. We saw in chapter 6 that Maturana and Varela ex- 
tended the definition of the living to include artificial systems. After coau- 
thoring The Embodied Mind , 1 Varela began to work in a new field known as 
Artificial Life and coedited the papers from the first European conference 
in that field. In the introduction to the conference volume. Toward a Prac- 
tice of Autonomous Systems, he and his coauthor, Paul Bourgine, lay out 
their view of what the field of Artificial Life should be. They locate its ori- 
gins in cybernetics, referencing William Grey Walter’s electronic tortoise 
and Ross Ashby’s homeostat. Although some characteristics of autopoiesis 
are reinscribed on the successor field of Artificial Life, especially the idea 
that systems are operationally closed, other features are new. The change is 
signaled in Varela’s subtle reconception of autonomy. He and his coauthor 
wrote: “Autonomy in this context refers to [the livings] basic and funda- 
mental capacity to be, to assert their existence and bring forth a world that 
is significant and pertinent without being pre-digested in advance. Thus 
the autonomy of the living is understood here both in regards to its actions 


Narratives of Artificial Life / 2 2 3 

and to the way it shapes a world into significance. This conceptual explo- 
ration goes hand in hand with the design and construction of autonomous 
agents and suggests an enormous range of applications at all scales, from 
cells to societies.” 2 For Maturana, “shapfing] a world into significance” 
meant that perception was linked primarily to internal processes rather 
than external stimuli. 3 We have seen the difficulties he had with evolution, 
because he sought to put the emphasis instead on the organism s holistic 
nature and autopoietic circularity. When Varela and his coauthor speak of 
“ shaping] a world into significance,” the important point for them is that 
the system s organization, far from remaining unchanged, can transform it- 
self through emergent behavior. The change is not so much an absolute 
break, however, as a shift in emphasis and a corresponding transformation 
in the kind of questions the research programs pose, as well as new strate- 
gies for answering them . Thus the relation of the third wave to the second is 
again one ofseriation, an overlapping pattern of replication and innovation. 

The shift in questions and methodologies is not, of course, neutral. For 
researchers who come to the field from backgrounds in cognitive science 
and computer science, rather than from autopoiesis as Varela does, the 
underlying assumptions all too easily lend themselves to reinscribing a dis- 
embodied view of information. But as Varelas presence in the field indi- 
cates, not everyone who works in the field agrees that disembodied 
“organisms” are the best way to construct Artificial Life. Just as there were 
competing camps in the Macy Conferences — one arguing for a disembod- 
ied view of information and one for a contextualized embodied view — so in 
Artificial Life some researchers concentrate on simulations, insisting that 
embodiment is not necessary 7 , whereas others argue that only embodied 
forms can fully capture the richness of an organism’s interactions with the 
environment. Our old friend the observer, who was at the center of the 
epistemological revolution sparked by Maturana, in the third wave retreats 
to the periphery 7 , with a consequent loss of the sophistication that Maturana 
brought to epistemological questions. The observer has, however, not alto- 
gether vanished from the scene, remaining in the picture as narrator and 
narratee of stories about Artificial Life. To see how the observer s presence 
helps to construct the field, let us turn now to consider the strange flora and 
fauna of the world of Artificial Life. 

The Nature and Artifice of Artificial Life 

At the Fourth Conlerence on Artificial Life in the summer of 1994, evolu- 
tionary biologist Thomas S. Ray put forth two proposals. 4 The first was a 

22 t, / Chapter Nine 

plan to preserve biodiversity in Costa Rican rain forests; the second was a 
suggestion that Tierra, his software program creating Artificial Life-forms 
inside a computer, be released on the Internet so that it could “breed” di- 
verse species on computers all over the world. Ray saw the two proposals as 
complementary. The first aimed to extend biological diversity for protein- 
based life-forms; the second sought the same for silicon-based life-forms. 
Their juxtaposition dramatically illustrates the reconstruction of nature go- 
ing on in the field of Artificial Life, affectionately known by its practitioners 
as AL. “The object of an AL instantiation,” Ray wrote recently, “is to intro- 
duce the natural form and process of life into an artificial medium .” 5 The 
lines startle. In Ray s rhetoric, the computer codes composing these “crea- 
tures” become natural forms of life; only the medium is artificial. 

How is it possible in the late twentieth century to believe, or at least 
claim to believe, that computer codes are alive — and not only alive but nat- 
ural? The question is difficult to answer directly, for it involves assumptions 
that are not explicitly articulated. Moreover, these presuppositions do not 
stand by themselves but move in dynamic interplay with other formula- 
tions and ideas circulating throughout the culture. In view of this complex- 
ity, the subject is perhaps best approached through indirection, by looking 
not only at the scientific content of the programs but also at the stories told 
about and through them. These stories, I will argue, constitute a multilay- 
ered system of metaphoric and material relays through which “life,” “na- 
ture,” and the “human” are being redefined. 

The first level of narrative with which I will be concerned is the Tierra 
program and various representations of it written by Ray and others. In 
these representations, authorial intention, anthropomorphic interpreta- 
tion, and the operations of the program are so interwoven that it is impos- 
sible to separate them. As a result, the program operates as much within the 
imagination as it does within the computer. The second level of narrative 
focuses on the arguments and rhetorical strategies that AL practitioners 
use as they seek to position Artificial Life as a valid area of research within 
theoretical biology. This involves telling a story about the state of the field 
and the contributions that AL can make. As we shall see, the second-level 
stoiy quickly moves beyond purely professional considerations, evoking a 
larger narrative about the kinds of life that have emerged, and are emerg- 
ing, on Earth. The narrative about the present and future of terrestrial evo- 
lution forms the third level. It is constituted through speculations on the 
relation of human beings to their silicon cousins, the “creatures” w'ho live 
inside the computer. Here, at the third level, the implication of the ob- 
server in the construction of all three narratives becomes explicit. To in- 

Narratives of Artificial Life / 225 

terrogate how this complex narrative field is initiated, developed, and in- 
terpolated with other cultural narratives, let us begin at the first level, with 
an explanation of the Tierra program. 

Conventionally, Artificial Life is divided into three research fronts. 
Wetware is the attempt to create artificial biological life through such tech- 
niques as building components of unicellular organisms in test tubes. 
Hardware is the construction of robots and other embodied life-forms. 
Software is the creation of computer programs instantiating emergent or 
evolutionary processes. Although each of these areas has its distinctive em- 
phases and research agendas, they all share the sense of building life from 
the “bottom up.” In the software branch, with which I am concerned here, 
the idea is to begin with a few simple local rules and then, through struc- 
tures that are highly recursive, allow' complexity to emerge spontaneously. 
Emergence implies that properties or programs appear on their own, often 
developing in w'ays not anticipated by the person who created the simula- 
tion. Structures that lead to emergence typically involve complex feedback 
loops in which the outputs of a system are repeatedly fed back in as input. 
As the recursive looping continues, small deviations can quickly become 
magnified, leading to the complex interactions and unpredictable evolu- 
tions associated with emergence . 6 

Even granting emergence, it is still a long jump from programs that repli- 
cate inside a computer to living organisms. This gap is bridged largely 
through narratives that map the programs into evolutionary scenarios tra- 
ditionally associated with the behavior of living creatures. The narratives 
translate the operations of computer codes into biological analogues that 
make sense of the program logic. In the process, the narratives alter the bi- 
nary operations that, on a physical level, amount to changing electronic po- 
larities, transforming the binary operations into the high drama of a 
Darwinian struggle for survival and reproduction. To see this transforma- 
tion in action, consider the following account of the Tierra program. This 
account is compiled from Thomas Rays published articles and unpub- 
lished working papers, from conversations I had with him about his pro- 
gram, and from public lectures he has given on the topic . 7 

When I visited Ray at the Santa Fe Institute, he talked about the genesis 
of Tierra. Frustrated with the slow pace of natural evolution, he w'ondcred 
il it would be possible to speed things up by creating evolvable artificial or- 
ganisms within the computer. One of the first challenges he faced was de- 
signing programs robust enough to withstand mutation without crashing. 
To induce robustness, he conceived of building inside the regular com- 
puter a “virtual computer” made out of software. Whereas the regular com- 

226 / Chapter Nine 

puter uses memory addresses to find data and execute instructions, the vir- 
tual computer uses a technique Ray calls “address by template.” Taking its 
cue from the topological matching of DNA bases, in which one base finds 
its appropriate partner by diffusing through the medium until it locates an- 
other base with a surface it can fit into like a key into a lock, address by tem- 
plate matches one code segment to another by looking for its binary 
inverse. For example, if an instruction is written in binary code 1001, the 
virtual computer searches nearby memory to find a matching segment with 
the code 0110. The strategy has the advantage of creating a container that 
holds the organisms and renders them incapable of replicating outside the 
virtual computer, for the address by template operation can occur only 
within a virtual computer. Presented with a string such as 0110, the regular 
computer would read it as data rather than instructions to replicate. 

Species diversify and evolve through mutation. To introduce mutation, 
Ray created the equivalent of cosmic rays by having the program flip the 
polarity of a bit once in ever)' 10,000 executed instructions. In addition, 
replication errors occur about once in every 1,000 to 2,500 instructions 
copied, introducing another source of mutation. Other differences spring 
from an effect Ray calls “sloppy reproduction,” analogous to the genetic 
mixing that occurs when a bacterium absorbs fragments of a dead organism 
nearby. To control the number of organisms, Ray introduced a program 
that he calls the “reaper.” The “reaper” monitors the population and elimi- 
nates the oldest creatures and those who are “defective,” that is, those who 
have most frequently erred in executing their programs. If a creature finds 
a way to replicate more efficiently, it is rewarded by being moved down in 
the reaper’s queue and so becomes “younger.” 

The virtual computer starts the evolutionary process by allocating a 
block of memory that Ray calls the “soup,” an analogy with the primeval 
soup at the beginning of life on Earth. Unleashed inside the soup are self- 
replicating programs, normally starting with a single 80-byte creature 
called the “ancestor.” The ancestor comprises three segments. The first 
segment counts the instructions to see how long the ancestor is (this proce- 
dure ensures that the length can change without throwing off the repro- 
ductive process); the second segment reserves that much space in nearby 
memory, putting a protective membrane around the space (an analogy with 
the membranes that enclose living organisms); and the third segment 
copies the ancestor s code into the reserved space, thus completing the re- 
production and creating a “daughter cell” from the “mother cell.” To see 
how' mutation leads to new species, consider that a bit flip occurs in the last 
line of the first segment, changing 1100 to 1110. Normally the program 

Narratives o' Artificial Life / 22 7 

would find the second segment by searching for its first line, encoded 0011. 
Now, however, the program searches until it finds a segment starting with 
0001. Thus it goes not to its own second segment but to another string of 
code in nearby memory. Many mutations are not viable and do not lead to 
reproduction. Occasionally, however, the program finds a segment that 
starts with 0001 and that will allow it to reproduce. Then a new species is 
created, as this organism begins producing offspring. 

When Ray set his program running overnight, he thought he would be 
luck) 7 to get a 1- or 2-byte variation from the 80-byte ancestor. Checking it 
the next morning, he found that an entire ecology had evolved, including 
one 22-byte organism. Among the mutants were parasites that had lost 
their own copying instructions but had developed the ability 7 to invade a 
host and hijack its copying procedure. One 45-byte parasite had evolved 
into a benign relationship with the ancestor; others were destructive, 
crowding out the ancestor with their own offspring. Later runs of the pro- 
gram saw the development of hyperparasites, which had evolved ways to 
compete for time as well as memory. Computer time is doled out equally to 
each organism by a “sheer” that determines when the organism can execute 
its program. Hyperparasites wait for parasites to invade them. Then, when 
the parasite attempts to reproduce using the hyperparasite’s copy proce- 
dure, the hyperparasite directs the program to its own third segment in- 
stead of returning the program to the parasite’s ending segment. Thus the 
hyperparasite’s code is copied on the parasite’s time. In this way the hyper- 
parasite greatly multiplies the time it has for reproduction, for in effect it 
appropriates the parasite’s time for its owi 1 . 

This, then, is the first-level narrative about the program. It appears with 
minor variations in Ray’s articles and lectures. It is also told in the Santa Fe 
Institute videotape “Simple Rules . . . Complex Behavior,” in which 
Ray collaborated with a graphic artist to create a visual representation of 
Tierra, accompanied by his voiceover. 8 If we ask how this narrative is con- 
stituted, we can see that statements about the operation of the program and 
interpretations of its meaning are in continuous interplay with each other. 
Consider the analogies implicit in such terms as “mother cell,” “daughter 
cell,” “ancestor,” “parasite,” and “hyperparasite.” The terms do more than 
set up parallels with living systems; they also reveal Ray’s intention in creat- 
ing an appropriate environment in which the dynamic emergence of evolu- 
tionary 7 processes could take off. In this respect, Ray’s rhetoric is quite 
different from that of Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene , a work also 
deeply informed by anthropomorphic constructions. 9 Dawkins’s rhetoric 
attributes to genes human agency and intention, creating a narrative of hu- 

228 / Chapter Nine 

manlike struggle for lineage. In his construction, Dawkins overlays onto 
the genes the strategies, emotions, and outcomes that properly belong to 
the human domain. Ray, by contrast, is working with artificial systems de- 
signed by humans precisely so the “creatures” would he able to manifest 
these qualities. This is the primary reason why explanation and interpreta- 
tion are inextricably entwined in the first-level narrative. Ray’s biomorphic 
namings and interpretations function not so much as an overlay as an expli- 
cation of an intention that was there at the beginning. Analogy is not inci- 
dental or belated but is central to the program’s artifactual design. 

Important as analogy is, it is not the whole story. The narrative’s com- 
pelling effect comes not only from analogical naming but also from images. 
In rhetorical analysis, of course, “image” can mean either an actual picture 
or a verbal formulation capable of evoking a mental picture. Whether an 
image is a visualization or visually evocative language, it is a powerful mode 
of communication because it draws on the high density' of information that 
images convey. Visualization and visually evocative language collaborate in 
the videotape that the Santa Fe Institute made to publicize its work. As the 
narrative about Tierra begins, the camera flies over a scene representing 
the inside of a computer. This stylized landscape is dominated by a block- 
like structure representing the CPU (Central Processing Unit) and dotted 
with smaller upright rectangles representing other integrated circuits. 
Then the camera zooms into the CPU, where we see a grid upon which the 
“creatures” appear and begin to reproduce. They are imaged as solid poly- 
gons strung together to form three sections, representing the three seg- 
ments of code. Let us linger at this scene and consider how it has been 
constructed. The pastoral landscape upon which the “creatures” are visual- 
ized instantiates a transformation characteristic of the new information 
technologies and the narratives that surround them. A material object (the 
computer) has been translated into the functions it performs (the programs 
it executes), which in turn have been represented in visual codes familiar to 
the viewer (the bodies of the “creatures”). The path can be represented 
schematically as material base — > functionality 7 — > representational code. 
This kind of transformation is extremely widespread, appearing in popular 
venues as well as in scientific applications. It is used by William Gibson in 
Neuromancer, for example, when he represents the data arrays of a global 
informational network as solid polygons in a three-dimensional space that 
his protagonist, transformed into a point of view, or pov, can navigate as 
though flying through the atmosphere . 10 The schematic operates in re- 
markably similar fashion in the video, where we become a disembodied 
pov flying over the lifeworld of the “creatures,” a world comfortingly 7 famil- 

Narratives of Artificial Life / 2 2 9 

iar in its three-dimensional spaces and rules of operation. Whereas the 
CPU landscape corresponds to the computer’s interior architecture, how- 
ever, the lifeworld of the “creatures” does not. The seamless transition be- 
tween the two elides the difference between the material space that is 
inside the computer and the imagined space that, in actuality, consists of 
computer addresses and electronic polarities on the computer disk. 

To explore how these images work to encode assumptions, consider the 
bodies of the “creatures,” which resemble stylized ants. In the program, the 
“creatures” have bodies only in a metaphoric sense, as Ray recognizes when 
he talks about their bodies of information (itself an analogy ). 11 These bod- 
ies of information are not, as the expression might be taken to imply, phe- 
notypic expressions of informational codes. Rather, the “creatures” are 
their codes. F or them, genotype and phenotype amount to the same thing; 
the organism is the code, and the code is the organism. By representing 
them as phenotypes, visually by giving them three-dimensional bodies and 
verbally by calling them “ancestors,” “parasites,” and such, Ray elides the 
difference between behavior, properly restricted to an organism, and exe- 
cution of a code, applicable to the informational domain. In the process, 
our assumptions about behavior, in particular our thinking of it as indepen- 
dent action undertaken by purposive agents, are transported into the 

F urther encoding takes place in the plot. Narrative tells a story, and in- 
trinsic to story is chronology, intention, and causality'. In Tierra, the narra- 
tive is constituted through the emerging story of the struggle of the 
“creatures” for survival and reproduction. More than an analogy 7 or an im- 
age, this is a drama that, if presented in a different medium, one would not 
hesitate to identify as an epic. Like an epic, it portrays life on a grand scale, 
depicting the rise and fall of races, some doomed and some triumphant, 
and recording the strategies they invent as they play for the high stakes of 
establishing a lineage. The epic nature of the narrative is even more explicit 
in Ray’s plans to develop a global ecology 7 for Tierra. In his proposal to cre- 
ate a digital “biodiversity reserve." the idea is to release the Tierra program 
on the Internet so that it can run in background on computers across the 
globe. Each site will develop its own microecology 7 . Because background 
programs run when demands on the computer are at a minimum, the pro- 
grams will normally be executed late at night, when most users are in bed. 
Humans are active w'hile the “creatures” are dormant; the “creatures” 
evolve while we sleep. Ray points out that someone monitoring activity in 
Tierra programs would therefore see it as a moving wave that follows dark- 
fall around the world. Linking the evolution of the “creatures” to the hu- 

230 / Chapter Nine 

man world in a complementary diurnal rhythm, the proposal edges toward 
a larger narrative level that interpolates their story 7 into ours, ours into 

A similar interpolation occurs in the video. The narrative appears to be 
following the script of Genesis, from the lightning that, flickering over the 
landscape, represents the life force to the “creatures,” who, like their hu- 
m an counterparts , follow the biblical imperative to be fruitful and multiply. 
When a death’s-head appears on the scene, representing the reaper pro- 
gram, we understand that this pastoral existence will not last for long. The 
idyll is punctured by competition between species, strategies of subversion 
and co-optation, and exploitation of one group by another — in short, all the 
trappings of rampant capitalism. To measure how much this narrative ac- 
complishes, we should remember that what one actually sees as the output 
of the Tierra program is a spectnim of bar graphs tracking the numbers of 
programs of given byte lengths as a function of time. The strategies emerge 
when human interpreters scrutinize the binary codes that constitute the 
“creatures” to find out how they have changed and determine how they 

No one knows this better, of course, than Ray and other researchers in 
the field. The video, as they would no doubt want to remind us, is merely an 
artist’s visualization and has no scientific standing. It is, moreover, intended 
for a wide audience , not all of whom are presumed to be scientists .This fact 
in itself is interesting, for the tape as a whole is an unabashed promotion of 
the Santa Fe Institute. It speaks to the efforts that practitioners in the field 
are making to establish Artificial Life as a valid, significant, and exciting 
area of scientific research. These efforts are not unrelated to the visual and 
verbal transformations discussed above. To the extent that the “creatures” 
are biomorphized, their representation reinforces the strong claim that the 
“creatures” are actually alive, extending the implications of the claim. Nor 
do the transformations appear only in the video, although they are particu- 
larly striking there. As the discussion above demonstrates, they are also in- 
scribed in published articles and commentary. In fact, they are essential to 
the strong claim that the computer codes do not merely simulate life but 
are themselves alive. At least some researchers at the Santa Fe Institute 
recognize the relation between the strong claim and the stories that re- 
searchers tell about these “organisms.” Asked about the strong claim, one 
respondent insisted: “It’s in the eye of the beholder. It’s not the system, it’s 
the observer .” 12 

In the second wave of cybernetics, accounting for the observer was of 
course a central concern. What happens when the observer is taken into ac- 

Narratives of A r t i f i c i a I Life / 231 

count in Artificial Life research? To explore fu rther the web of connections 
between the operations of the program, descriptions of its operation by ob- 
servers, and the contexts in which these descriptions are embedded, we 
will follow the thread to the next narrative level, where arguments circulate 
about the contributions that Artificial Life can make to scientific knowl- 

Positioning the Field: The Polities of Artificial Life 

Christopher Langton, one of the most visible of the AL researchers, ex- 
plains the reasoning behind the strong claim. “The principle [sic\ assump- 
tion made in Artificial Life is that the ‘logical form’ of an organism can be 
separated from its material basis of construction, and that ‘aliveness’ will be 
found to be a property of the former, not of the latter. ” 13 It would be easy to 
dismiss the claim on the basis that the reasoning behind it is tautological: 
Langton defines life in such a way as to make su re the programs qualify, and 
then, because they qualify, he claims they are alive . But more is at work here 
than tautology. Resonating through Langtons definition are assumptions 
that have marked Western philosophical and scientific inquiry at least since 
Plato. Form can logically be separated from matter; form is privileged over 
matter; form defines life, whereas the material basis merely instantiates 
life. The definition is a site of reinscription as well as tautology. This con- 
vergence suggests that the context for our inquiry should be broadened be- 
yond the logical form of the definition to the field of inquiry in which such 
arguments persuade precisely because they re inscribe. 

This context includes attitudes, held deeply by many researchers in sci- 
entific communities, about the relation between the complexity of observ- 
able phenomena and the relatively simple rules they are seen to embody. 
Traditionally, the natural sciences, especially physics, have attempted to 
reduce apparent complexity' to underlying simplicity. The attempt to find 
the “fundamental building blocks” of the universe in quarks is one example 
of this endeavor; the mapping of the human genome is another . 14 The sci- 
ences of complexity, with their origins in nonlinear dynamics, complicated 
this picture by demonstrating that for certain nonlinear dynamical systems, 
the evolution of the system could not be predicted, even in theory’, from the 
initial conditions (just as Ray’ did not know what creatures w'ould evolve 
from the ancestor). Thus the sciences of complexity articulated a limit on 
what reductionism could accomplish. In a significant sense, however, AL 
researchers have not relinquished reductionism. In place of predictability, 
which is traditionally the test of whether a theory works, they emphasize 

2 3 2 / Chapter Nine 

emergence. Instead of starting with a complex phenomenal world and rea- 
soning back through chains of inference to what the fundamental elements 
must be, they start with the elements, complicating the elements through 
appropriately nonlinear processes so that the complex phenomenal world 
appears on its own . 15 

What is the justification for calling the simulation and the phenomena 
that emerge from it a “world”? It is precisely because they are generated 
from simple underlying rules and forms. AL reinscribes, then, the main- 
stream assumption that simple rules and forms give rise to phenomenal 
complexity. The difference is that AL starts at the simple end, where syn- 
thesis can move forward spontaneously, rather than at the complex end, 
where analysis must work backward. Langton, in his explanation of what 
AL can contribute to theoretical biolog) - , makes this difference explicit: 
“Artificial Life is the study of man-made systems that exhibit behaviors 
characteristic of natural living systems. It complements the traditional bio- 
logical sciences concerned with the analysis of living organisms by at- 
tempting to synthesize life-like behaviors within computers and other 
artificial media. By extending the empirical foundation upon which biology 
is based beyond the carbon-chain life that has evolved on Earth, Artificial 
Life can contribute to theoretical biology by locating life-as-we-know-it 
within the larger picture of life-as-it-could-be .” 16 

The presuppositions informing such statements have been studied by 
Stefan Helmreich, an anthropologist w'ho spent several months at the 
Santa Fe Institute . 1 7 Helmreich interviewed several of the major players in 
the U.S. ALcommunity, including Langton, Ray, John Holland, and others. 
Helmreich summarized his informants’ views about the “worlds” they cre- 
ate: “For many of the people I interviewed, a ‘world’ or ‘universe’ is a self- 
consistent, complete, and closed system that is governed by low level laws 
that in turn support higher level phenomena which, while dependent on 
these elementary laws, cannot be simply derived from them .” 18 Helmreich 
used comments from the interviews to paint a fascinating picture of the 
various ways in which simple laws are believed to underlie complex 
phenomena. Several informants thought that the world was mathematical 
in essence. Others held the view, also extensively articulated by Edward 
Fredkin, that the world is fundamentally composed of information . 19 
From these points of view, phenomenological experience is itself a kind 
of illusion, covering an underlying reality of simple forms. For these 
researchers, a computer program that generates phenomenological com- 
plexity out of simple forms is no more or less illusory than the “real” world. 

The form/matter dichotomy is intimately related to this vision, for real- 

Narratives of Artificial Life / 233 

ity at the fundamental level is seen as form rather than matter, specifically 
as informational code whose essence lies in a binary choice rather than a 
material substrate. Fredkin, for example, says that reality is a software pro- 
gram run by a cosmic computer, whose nature must forever remain un- 
known to us because it lies outside the structure of reality, whose programs 
it runs . 20 For Fredkin, AL programs are alive in precisely the same sense as 
biological life — because they are complex phenomena generated by un- 
derlying binary code. The assumption that form occupies a foundational 
position relative to matter is especially easy to make with information tech- 
nologies, since information is defined in theoretic terms (as we have seen) 
as a probability function and thus as a pattern or form rather than as a ma- 
terially instantiated entity. 

Information technologies seem to realize a dream impossible in the nat- 
ural world — the opportunity to look directly into the inner workings of re- 
ality at its most elemental level. The directness of the gaze does not derive 
from the absence of mediation. On the contrary, our ability lo look into pro- 
grams like Tierra is highly mediated by everything from computer graphics 
to the processing program that translates machine code into a high-level 
computer language such as C + + . Rather, the gaze is privileged because 
the observer can peer directly into the elements of the world before the 
world cloaks itself with the appearance of complexity. Moreover, the ob- 
server is presumed to be cut from the same cloth as the world being in- 
spected, inasmuch as the observer is also constituted through binary 
processes similar to those seen inside the computer. The essence of Tierra 
as an artificial world is no different from the essence of the observer or of 
the world that the observer occupies: all are constituted through forms un- 
derstood as informational patterns. When form is triumphant, Tierra’s 
“creatures” are, in a disconcertingly literal sense, just as much life-forms as 
are any other organisms. 

We are now in a position to understand the deep reasons why some prac- 
titioners think of programs like Tierra not as models or simulations but as 
life itself. As Langton and many others point out, in the analytic approach, 
reality is modeled by treating a complex phenomenon as if it was composed 
of smaller constituent parts. These parts are broken down into still smaller 
parts, until we find parts sufficiently simplified that they can be treated 
mathematically. Most scientists would be quick to agree that the model is 
not the reality, because they recognize that many complexities had to be 
tossed out by the wayside in order to lighten the wagon enough to get it over 
the rough places in the trail. Their hope is that the model nevertheless cap- 
tures enough of the relevant aspects of a system to tell them something sig- 

2 3 < / Chapter Nine 

nificant about how reality works. In the synthetic approach, by contrast, the 
complexities emerge spontaneously as a result of the system s operation. 
The system itself adds back in the baggage that had to be tossed out in the 
analytic approach. (Whether it is the same baggage remains, of course, to 
be seen.) In this sense Artificial Life poses an interesting challenge to the 
view of nineteenth-century vitalists, who saw in the analytic approach a 
reductionist methodology that could never adequately capture the com- 
plexities of life. If it is true that the analytical approach murders by dissec- 
tion, by the same reasoning the synthetic approach of AL may be able to 
procreate by emergence. 

In addition to these philosophical considerations, there are also more 
obviously political reasons to make a strong claim for the “aliveness” of Ar- 
tificial Life. As a new kid on the block, AL must jockey for position with 
larger, better-established research agendas. A common reaction from 
other scientists is, “Well, this is all very' interesting, but what good is it?” 
Even AL researchers joke that AL is a solution in search of a problem. 
When applications are suggested, they are often open to cogent objec- 
tions. As long as AL programs are considered to be simulations, any results 
produced from them may be artifacts of the simulation rather than prop- 
erties of natural systems. So what if a certain result can be produced within 
the simulation? The result is artifactual and therefore nonsignifying with 
respect to the natural world unless the same mechanisms can be shown to 
be at work in natural systems . 21 These difficulties disappear, however, if 
AL programs are themselves alive. Then the point is not that they model 
natural systems but rather that they are, in themselves, also alive and 
therefore as worthy of study as evolutionary processes in naturally occur- 
ring media. 

This is the tack that Langton takes when he compares AL simulations to 
synthetic chemicals . 22 In the early days, he observes, the study of chemistry 
was confined to naturally occurring elements and compounds. Although 
some knowledge could be gained from these, the results were limited by 
what lay ready at hand. Once researchers learned to synthesize chemicals, 
their knowledge took a quantum leap forward, for then chemicals could be 
tailored to specific research problems. Similarly, theoretical biology has 
been limited to the cases that lie ready at hand, namely the evolutionary 
pathways taken by carbon-based life. Even though generalizing from a sin- 
gle instance is notoriously difficult, theoretical biology had no choice; car- 
bon-based life was it. Now a powerful new instance has been added to the 
repertoire, for AL simulations represent an alternative evolutionary path- 
way followed by silicon-based life-forms . 

Narratives of Artificial Life / 235 

What theoretical biology looks for, in this view, are similarities that cut 
across the particularities of the media. In “Beyond Digital Naturalism,” 
Walter Fontana and his coauthors lay out a research agenda “ultimately 
motivated by a premise: that there exists a logical deep structure of which 
carbon chemistry-based life is a manifestation. The problem is to discover 
what it is and what the appropriate mathematical devices are to express 
it .” 23 Such a research agenda presupposes that the essence of life, under- 
stood as logical form, is independent of the medium. More is at stake in this 
agenda than expanding the frontiers of theoretical biology. By positing AL 
as a second instance of life, researchers affect the definition of biological 
life as well, for now it is the juxtaposition that determines what counts as 
fundamental, not carbon-based forms by themselves. 

This change hints at the far-reaching implications of the narrative of Ar- 
tificial Life as an alternate evolutionary pathway for life on Earth. To ex- 
plore these implications, let us turn to the thir d level of narrative, where we 
will consider stories about the relation of humans to our silicon cousins, the 
Artificial Life-forms that represent the road not taken — until now. 

Reconfiguring the Body of Information 

As research on Artificial Life-forms continues and expands, the construc- 
tion of human life is affected as well . Rodney Brooks, of the Artificial Intel- 
ligence Laboratory at MIT, and the roboticist Hans Moravec, noted in 
earlier chapters, tell two different narratives of how the human will be re- 
configured in the face of artificial bodies of inf ormation . Whereas Moravec 
privileges consciousness as the essence of human being and wants to pre- 
serve it intact. Brooks speculates that the more essential property of the hu- 
man being is the ability to move around and interact robustly with the 
environment. Instead of starting with the most advanced qualities of hu- 
man thought. Brooks starts with locomotion and simple interactions and 
works from the bottom up. Despite these different orientations, both 
Brooks and Moravec see the future of human being inextricably bound up 
with Artificial Life. Indeed, in the future world they envision, distinguish- 
ing between natural and Artificial Life, human and machine intelligence, 
will be difficult or impossible. 

In Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence, Moravec 
argues that the age of carbon-based life is drawing to a close . 24 Humans are 
about to be replaced by intelligent machines as the dominant life-form on 
the planet. Drawing on the work of A. G. Cairns-Smith, Moravec suggests 
that such a revolution is not unprecedented . 25 Before protein replication 

236 / Chapter Nine 

developed, aprimitive form oflife existed in certain silicon cry stals that had 
the ability to replicate. But protein replication was so far superior that it 
soon left the replicating crystals in the dust. Now silicon has caught up with 
us again, in the form of computers and computerized robots. Although the 
Cairns-Smith hypothesis has been largely discredited, in Moravec s text it 
serves the useful purpose of increasing the plausibility of his vision by pre- 
senting the carbon-silicon struggle as a rematch of an earlier contest rather 
than as an entirely new event. 

A different approach is advocated by other members of the AL commu- 
nity', among them Rodney Brooks, Pattie Maes, and Mark Tilden . 26 They 
point to the importance of having agents who can leam from interactions 
with a physical environment. Simulations, they believe, are limited by the ar- 
tificiality of their context. Compared with the rich variety and creative sur- 
prises of the natural world, simulations are stick worlds populated by stick 
figures. No one argues this case more persuasively than Brooks. When I 
talked with him at his MIT laboratory, he mentioned that he and Hans 
Moravec had been roommates in college (a coincidence almost allegorical in 
its neatness). Moravec, for his senior project, had built a robot that used a 
central representation of the world to navigate. The robot would go a few 
feet, feed in data from its sensors to the central representation, map its new 
position, and move a few more feet. Using this process, it would take several 
hours to cross a room. If anyone came in during the meantime, it would be 
thrown hopelessly off course. Brooks, a loyal roommate, stayed up late one 
night to watch the robot as it carried out its agonizingly slow perambulation. 
The thought occurred to Brooks that a cockroach could accomplish the same 
task in a fraction of the time , and yet the cockroach could not possibly have as 
much computing power aboard as the robot. Deciding that there had to be a 
better way, he began building robots according to a different philosophy. 

In his robots, Brooks uses what he calls “subsumption architecture.” The 
idea is to have sensors and actuators connected directly to simple finite- 
state machine modules, with a minimum of communication between 
them. Each system “sees” the world in a way that is entirely different from 
how the other systems see the world. There is no central representation, 
only a control system that kicks in to adjudicate when there is a conflict be- 
tween the distributed modules. Brooks points out that the robot does not 
need to have a coherent concept of the world; instead it can leam what it 
needs directly through interaction with its environment. The philosophy is 
summed up in his aphorism: “The world is its own best model .” 2 7 

Subsumption architecture is designed to facilitate and capitalize on 
emergent behavior. The idea can be illustrated with Genghis, a six-legged 

Narratives of Artificial Life / 23/ 

robot somewhat resembling an oversize cockroach, which Brooks hopes to 
sell to NASA as a planetar)- explorer. 28 Genghis’s gait is not programmed in 
advance. Rather, each of the six legs is programmed to stabilize itself in an 
environment that includes the other live. Each time Genghis starts up, it 
has to learn to walk anew. For the first few seconds it will stumble around; 
then, as the legs begin to take account of what the others are doing, a 
smooth gait emerges. The robot is relatively cheap to build, is more robust 
than the large planetary explorers that NASA currently uses, and is under 
its own local control rather than being dependent on a central controller 
who may not be on site to see what is happening. “Fast, cheap, and out of 
control” is another aphorism that Brooks uses to sum up the philosophy be- 
hind the robots he builds. 

Brooks’s program has been carried further by Mark Tilden, a Canadian 
roboticist who worked under Brooks and now is at the U niversity ot Water- 
loo. In my conversation with him, Tilden mentioned that he grew up on a 
farm in Canada and was struck by how chickens ran around after they their 
heads had been cut off, performing, as he likes to put it, complicated navi- 
gational tasks in three-dimensional space without any cortex at all. He de- 
cided that considerable computation had to be going on in the peripheral 
nervous system . He used the insight to design insectlike robots that operate 
on nervous nets (considerably simpler than the more complex neural nets) 
composed of no more than twelve transistor circuits. These robots use ana- 
logue rather than digital computing to cany out their tasks. Like Genghis, 
they have an emergent gait. They are remarkably robust, are able to right 
themselves when turned over, and can even learn a compensatory gait 
when one of their legs is bent or broken off. 29 

Narratives about the relation of these robots to humans emerge when 
Brooks and others speculate about the relevance of their work to human 
evolution. Brooks acknowledges that the robots he builds have the equiv- 
alent of insect intelligence. But insect intelligence is, he says, nothing to 
sneer at. Chronologically speaking, by the time insects appeared on Earth, 
evolution was already 95 percent of the way to creating human intelli- 
gence. 30 The hard part, he believes, is evolving creatures who are mobile 
and who can interact robustly with their environment. Once these quali- 
ties are in place, the rest comes relatively quickly, including the sophisti- 
cated cognitive abilities that humans possess. How did humans evolve? In 
his view, they evolved through the same kind of mechanisms that he uses 
in his robots, namely distributed systems that interact robustly with the 
environment and that consequently “see” the world in very different ways. 
Consciousness is a relatively late development, analogous to the control 

238 / Chapter Nine 

system that kicks in to adjudicate conflicts between the different distrib- 
uted systems. Consciousness is, as Brooks likes to say, a “cheap trick,” that 
is, an emergent property that increases the functionality of the system but 
is not part of the system s essential architecture. Consciousness does not 
need to be, and in fact is not, representational. Like the robot’s control sys- 
tem, consciousness does not require an accurate picture of the world; it 
needs only a reliable interface. As evidence that human consciousness 
works this way, Brooks adduces the fact that most adults are unaware that 
they go through life with a large blank spot in the middle of their visual 

This reasoning leads to yet another aphorism that circulates through the 
AL community: “Consciousness is an epiphenomenon.” The implication is 
that consciousness, although it thinks it is the main show, is in fact a late- 
comer, a phenomenon dependent on and arising from deeper and more es- 
sential layers of perception and being. The view is reminiscent of the 
comedian Emo Phillips’s comment. “I used to think that the brain was the 
most wonderful organ in the body,” he says. “But then I thought, who’s 
telling me this?” 

It would be difficult to imagine a more contrarian position to the one 
that Hans Moravec espouses when he equates consciousness with human 
subjectivity. In this respect Moravec aligns with Artificial Intelligence 
(AI), whereas Brooks and his colleagues align with Artificial Life (AL ). 31 
Michael Dyer, in his comparison of the two fields, points ont that whereas 
AI envisions cognition as the operation of logic, AL sees cognition as the op- 
eration of nervous systems; AI starts with human-level cognition, AL with 
insect- or animal-level cognition; in AI, cognition is constructed as if inde- 
pendent of perception, whereas in AL it is integrated with sensoiy/motor 
experiences . 32 

Brooks and his colleagues forcefully argue that AI has played itself out 
and that the successor paradigm is AL. Brooks and Ray both believe that we 
will eventually be able, using AL techniques, to evolve the equivalent of hu- 
man intelligence inside a computer. For Brooks, that project is already un- 
der way with “Cog,” a head-and-torso robot with sophisticated visual and 
manipulative capability'. But AL researchers go about creating high-level 
intelligence in ways dramatically different from those of AI researchers. 
Consider the implications of this shift for the construction of the human. 
The goal of AI was to build, inside a machine, an intelligence comparable to 
that of a human. The human was the measure; the machine was the attempt 
at instantiation in a different medium. This assumption deeply informs the 
Turing test, dating from the early days of the AI era, which defined success 

Narratives of Artificial Life / 239 

as building a machine intelligence that cannot be distinguished from a 
human intelligence. By contrast, the goal of AL is to evolve intelligence 
within the machine through pathways found by the “creatures” them- 
selves. Rather than serving as the measure to judge success, human intelli- 
gence is itself reconfigured in the image of this evolutionary process. 
Whereas AI dreamed of creating consciousness inside a machine, AL sees 
human consciousness, understood as an epiplienomenon, perching on top 
of the machinelike functions that distributed systems carry out . 33 In the AL 
paradigm, the machine becomes the model for understanding the human. 
Thus the human is transfigured into the posthuman. 

To indicate the widespread reach of this refashioning of the human into 
the posthuman, in the following section I want to sketch with broad strokes 
some of the research contributing to this project. The sketch will necessar- 
ily be incomplete. Yet even this imperfect picture will be useful in indicat- 
ing the scope of the posthuman. So pervasive is this refashioning that it 
amounts to a new worldview — one still in process, highly contested, and of- 
ten speculative, yet with enough links between different sites to be edging 
toward a vision of wbat we might call the computational universe. In the 
computational universe, the essential function for both intelligent ma- 
chines and humans is processing information. Indeed, the essential func- 
tion of the universe as a whole is processing information. In a way different 
from what Norbert Wiener imagined, the computational universe realizes 
the cybernetic dream of creating a world in which humans and intelligent 
machines can both feel at home. That equality derives from the view that 
not only our world but the great cosmos itself is a vast computer and that we 
are the programs it runs. 

The Computational Universe 

Let us start our tour of the computational universe at the most basic level, 
the level that underlies all life-forms, indeed all matter and energy. The 
units that compose this level are cellular automata. From their simple on- 
off functioning, everything else is built up. Cellular automata were first 
proposed by John von Neumann in his search to describe self-reproducing 
automata. Influenced by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts’s work 
on the on-off functioning of the neural system, von Neumann used the 
McCulloch- Pitts neuron as a model for computers, inventing switching de- 
vices that could perform the same kind of logical functions that McCulloch 
had outlined for neurons. Von Neumann also proposed that the neural sys- 
tem could be treated as a Turing machine. Biology thus provided him with 

2<o / Chapter Nine 

clues to build computers, and computers provided clues for theoretical bi- 
olog}'. To extend the analogy between biological organism and machine, he 
imagined a giant automaton that could perform the essential biological 
function of self-reproduction. 34 (As we saw in chapter 6, Maturana re- 
ferred to this when he made the point that what von Neumann modeled 
were biologists’ descriptions of living processes rather than the processes 

Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish mathematician who worked with von Neumann 
at Los Alamos during World War II, suggested to von Neumann that he 
could achieve the same result by abstracting the automaton into a grid of 
cells. Thus von Neumann reduced the massive and resistant materiality of 
the self-reproducing automaton as he had originally envisioned it to undif- 
ferentiated cells with bodies so transparent that they were constituted 
as squares marked off on graph paper and later as pixels on computer 
screens. 30 

Each cellular automaton (or CA) functions as a simple finite-state ma- 
chine, with its state determined solely by its initial condition (on or off), by 
rules telling it how to operate, and by the state of its neighbors at each mo- 
ment. For example, the rule for one group of CAs might state, “On if two 
neighbors are on, otherwise off.” Each cell checks on the state of its neigh- 
bors and updates its state in accordance with its rules at the same time that 
the neighboring cells also update their states. In this way the grid of cells 
goes through one generation after another, in a succession of states that (on 
a computer) can easily stretch to hundreds of thousands of generations. Ex- 
tremely complex patterns can build up, emerging spontaneously from in- 
teractions between the CAs. Programmed into a computer and displayed 
on the screen, CAs give the uncanny impression of being alive. Some pat- 
terns spread until they look like the designs of intricate Oriental rugs, oth- 
ers float across the screen like gliders, and still others flourish only to die out 
within a few hundred generations. Looking at the emergence of complex 
dynamical patterns from these simple components, more than one re- 
searcher has had the intuition that such a system can explain the growth and 
decay of patterns in the natural world. Edward Fredkin took this insight 
further, seeing in cellular automata the foundational structure from which 
everything in the universe is built up. 

How does this building up occur? In the computational universe, the 
question can be rephrased by asking how higher-level computations can 
emerge spontaneously from the underlying structure of cellular automata. 
Langton has done pioneering work analyzing the conditions under which 
cellular automata can support the fundamental operations of computation, 

Narratives of Artificial Life / 2 1,\ 

which he analyzes as requiring the transfer, storage, and modification of in- 
formation . 36 His research indicates that computation is most likely to arise 
at the boundary between ordered structures and chaotic areas. In an or- 
dered area, the cells are tightly tied together through rules that make them 
extremely interdependent; it is precisely this interdependence that leads to 
order. But the tightly ordered structure also means that the cells as an ag- 
gregate will be unable to perform some of the essential tasks of higher-level 
computation, particularly the transfer and modification of information. In 
a chaotic area, by contrast, the cells are relatively independent of one an- 
other; this independence is what makes them appear disordered. Although 
this state lends itself to information transfer and modification, here the 
storage of information is a problem because no pattern persists for long. 
Only in boundary areas between chaos and order is there the necessary in- 
novation/replication tension that allows patterns to build up, modify, and 
travel over long distances without dying out. 

These results are strikingly similar to those discovered by Stuart Kauff- 
man in his work on the origins of life. Kauff man was McCulloch’s last pro- 
tege; in several interviews, McCulloch said that he regarded Kauffman as 
his most important collaborator since Pitts . 37 Kauffman argues that natural 
selection alone is not enough to explain the relatively short timescale on 
which life arose . 38 Some other ordering principle is necessary, which he 
locates in the ability of complex systems spontaneously to self-organize. 
Calculating the conditions necessary for large molecules to organize spon- 
taneously into the building blocks of life, he found that life is most likely to 
arise at the edge of chaos. This means that there is a striking correspon- 
dence between the conditions under which life is likely to emerge and 
those under which computation is likely to emerge — a convergence re- 
garded by many researchers as an unmistakable sign that computation and 
life are linked at a deep level. In this view, humans are programs that run on 
the cosmic computer. When humans build intelligent computers to run AL 
programs, they replicate in another medium the same processes that 
brought themselves into being. 

An important reason why such connections can be made so easily be- 
tween one level and another is that in the computational universe, every- 
thing is reducible, at some level, to information. Yet among proponents of 
the computational universe, not everyone favors disembodiment, just as 
they did not in the Macy Conferences when the idea of information was be- 
ing formulated. Consider, for example, the different approaches taken by 
Edward Fredkin and the new field of evolutionary psychology. When Fred- 
kin asserts that we can never know the nature of the cosmic computer on 

2 42 / Chapter Nine 

which we run as programs, he puts the ultimate material embodiment out 
of our reach. All we, as human beings, will ever see are the informational 
forms of pure binary code that he calls cellular automata. By contrast, the 
field of evolutionary psychology seeks to locate modular computer pro- 
grams in embodied human beings whose physical makeup is the result of 
hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary processes. 

The agenda for this new field is set out by Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cos- 
mides, and John Tooby in The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology 
and the Generation of Culture. Like Minksy, they argue that the model (or 
metaphor) of computation provides the basis for a wholesale revision of 
what counts as human nature . 39 They aim to overcome cultural anthropol- 
ogists and others’ objections to the idea of “human nature” by offering a 
more flexible version of how that nature is constituted. They argue that be- 
havior can be modeled as modular computer programs running in the 
brain. The underlying structure of these programs is the result of thou- 
sands of years of evolutionary tinkering. Those adaptations that conferred 
superior reproductive fitness survived; those that did not died out. The pro- 
grams are structured to enable certain functionalities to exist in humans, 
and these functionalities are universally present in all humans. These func- 
tionalities, however, represent potentials rather than actualities. Just as the 
actual behavior of a computer program is determined by a constant under- 
lying structure and varying inputs, so actual human behavior results from 
an interplay between the potential represented by the functionalities and 
the inputs provided by the environments. All normal human infants, forex- 
ample, have the potential to learn language. If they are not exposed to lan- 
guage by a certain critical age, however, this potential disappears and they 
can never become linguistically competent. Although human behavior 
varies across a wide spectrum of actualization, it nevertheless has an un- 
derlying universal structure determined by evolutionary adaptations. Thus 
a science of evolutionary psychology is possible, for the existence of a uni- 
versal underlying structure guarantees the regularities that any science 
needs in order to formulate coherent and consistent knowledge. 

This cybernetic-computer vision of human behavior leads to a very dif- 
ferent account of “human nature.” Although the evolutionary programs 
that the brain-computer runs do not lead to universal behavior, they are 
nevertheless rich with content. The potentials lie not just in the structure of 
the general machine but, much more specifically in the environmentally 
adaptive programs that proactively shape human responses. Thus children 
are not merely capable oflearning language; they actively want to learn lan- 
guage and will invent it among themselves if no one teaches them . 40 Like 

Narratives of Artificial Life / 243 

Wiener s cybernetic machine, the cybernetic brain is responsive to the flow 
of events around it and is adaptive over an astonishingly diverse set of cir- 
cumstances. The fact that only the intelligent machine is seen to be light 
enough on its feet to do justice to human variability is a measure of just how 
much our vision of machines has changed since the Industrial Revolution. 

It will now perhaps be clear why the most prized functionality is the abil- 
ity' to process information, for in the computational universe, information is 
king. Luc Steels, an AL researcher, reinscribes this value when he distin- 
guishes between first-order emergence and second-order emergence 
(surely it is no accident that the terminology here echoes the distinction be- 
tween first-order cybernetics and second-order cybernetics, the grandpar- 
ent and parent of Artificial Life). First-order emergence denotes any 
properties that are generated by interactions between components, that is, 
properties that emerge as a result of those interactions, in contrast to prop- 
erties inherent in the components themselves. Among all such emergent 
properties, second-order emergence grants special privilege to those that 
bestow additional functionality 7 on the system, particularly the ability 7 
to process information . 41 To create successful Artificial Life programs, it 
is not enough to create just any emergence. Rather, the programmer 
searches for a design that will lead to second-order emergence. Once 
second-order emergence is achieved, the organism has in effect evolved 
the capacity to evolve. Then evolution can really take off. Humans evolved 
through a combination of chance and self-organizing processes until they 
reached the point where they could take conscious advantage of the princi- 
ples of self-organization to create evolutionary 7 mechanisms . They used this 
ability 7 to build machines capable of self-evolution. Unlike humans, how- 
ever, the machine programs are not hampered by the time restrictions 
imposed by biological evolution and physical maturation. They can run 
through hundreds of generations in a day, millions in a year. Until very re- 
cently, humans have been without peer in their ability 7 to store, transmit, 
and manipulate information. Now they share that ability 7 with intelligent 
machines. To foresee the future of this evolutionary path, we have only to 
ask which of these organisms, competing in many ways for the same evolu- 
tionary niche, has the information-processing capability to evolve more 

This conclusion makes clear, I think, why the computational universe 
should not be accepted uncritically. If the name of the game is processing 
information, it is only a matter of time until intelligent machines replace us 
as our evolutionary heirs. Whether we decide to fight them or join them by 
becoming computers ourselves, the day's of the human race are numbered. 

244 / Chapter Nine 

The problem here does not lie in the choice between these options; rather, 
it lies in the framework constructed so as to make these options the only two 
available. The computational universe becomes dangerous when it goes 
from being a useful heuristic to an ideology that privileges information over 
everything else. As we have seen, information is a socially constructed con- 
cept; in addition to its currently accepted definition, it could have been, and 
was, given different definitions. Just because information has lost its body 
does not mean that humans and the world have lost theirs. 

Fortunately, not all theorists agree that it makes sense to think about in- 
formation as an entity apart from the medium that embodies it. Let us re- 
visit some of the sites in the computational universe, this time to locate 
those places where the resistance of materiality does useful work within the 
theories. From this perspective, fracture lines appear that demystify the 
program (s) and make it possible to envision other futures, futures in which 
human beings feel at home in the universe because they are embodied 
creatures living in an embodied world. 

Murmurs from the Body 

One of the striking differences between researchers who work with flesh 
and those who work with computers is how nuanced the sense of the body’s 
complexity is for those who are directly engaged with it. The difference can 
be seen in the contrast between Marvin Minsky’s “society of mind” ap- 
proach and the approach of the evolutionary psychologists. Although Min- 
sky frequently uses evolutionary arguments to clarify the structure of a 
program, his main interest clearly lies in building computer models that 
can accomplish human behaviors. 42 He characteristically thinks in terms of 
computer architecture, about which he knows a great deal, rather than hu- 
man physiology. In his lectures (and less so in his writing), he rivals Moravec 
in his consistent downplaying of the importance of embodiment. At the 
public lecture he delivered in 1996 on the eve of the Fifth Conference on 
Artificial Life in Nara, Japan, he argued that only with the advent of com- 
puter languages has a symbolic mode of description arisen adequate to ac- 
count for human beings, whom he defines as complicated machines. “A 
person is not ahead and arms and legs,” he remarked. “That’s trivial. A per- 
son is a very’ large multiprocessor with a million times a million small parts, 
and these are arranged as a thousand computers.” It is not surprising, then, 
that he shares with Moravec the dream of banishing death by downloading 
consciousness into a computer. “The most important thing about each per- 
son is the data, and the programs in the data that are in the brain. And some 

Narratives of Artificial Life / 245 

day you will be able to take all that data, and put it on a little disk, and store 
it for a thousand years, and then turn it on again and you will be alive in the 
fourth millennium or the fifth millennium.” 43 

Yet anyone who actually works with embodied forms, from the relatively 
simple architecture of robots to the vastly more complicated workings of 
the human neural system, knows that it is by no means trivial to deal with 
the resistant materialities of embodiment. To Minsky, these problems of 
embodiment are nuisances that do not even have the virtue of being con- 
ceptually interesting. In his plenary lecture at the Fifth Conference on Ar- 
tificial Life, he asserted that a student who constructed a simulation of 
robot motion learned more in six months than the roboticists did in six years 
of building actual robots. 44 Certainly simulations are useful for a wide 
range of problems, for they abstract a few' features out of a complex inter- 
active whole and then manipulate those features to get a better under- 
standing of what is going on. Compared with the real world, they are more 
efficient precisely because they are more simplified. The problem comes 
when this mode of operation is taken to be fully representative of a much 
more complex reality and when everything that is not in the simulation is 
declared to be trivial, unimportant, or uninteresting. 

Like Varela in his criticisms and modifications of Minsky’s model (dis- 
cussed in chapter 6); Barkow, Tooby, and Cosmides are careful not to make 
this mistake. They acknowledge that the mind-body duality is a social con- 
struction that obscures the holistic nature of human experience. Another 
researcher who speaks powerfully to the importance of embodiment is An- 
tonio Damasio, in Descartes’ Error: Emotion , Reason, and the Human 
Brain. Discussing the complex mechanisms by which mind and body com- 
municate, he emphasizes that the body is more than a life-support system 
for the brain. The body “contributes a content that is part and parcel of the 
workings of the normal mind.” 45 Drawing on his detailed knowledge of 
neurophysiology and his years of experience working with patients who 
have suffered neural damage, he argues that feelings constitute a window 
through which the mind looks into the body Feelings are liow the body 
communicates to the mind information about its structure and continu- 
ously varying states. If feelings and emotions are the body murmuring 
to the mind, then feelings are “just as cognitive as other precepts,” part 
ol thought and indeed part of what makes us rational creatures (p. xv). 
Damasio finds it significant that cognitive science, with its computational 
approach to mind, has largely ignored the fact that feelings even exist (with 
some notable exceptions, such as The Embodied Mind, discussed in chap- 
ter 6). One can guess what his response to the scenario of downloading hu- 

2 < 56 / Chapter Nine 

man consciousness would be, from the following passage: “In brief, neural 
circuits represent the organism continuously, as it is perturbed by stimuli 
from the physical and sociocultural environments, and as it acts on those 
environments. If the basic topic of those representations were not an or- 
ganism anchored in the body, we might have some form of mind, but I 
doubt that it would be the mind we do have” (p . 226 ) . Human mind without 
human body is not human mind. More to the point, it doesn’t exist. 

What are we to make, then, of the posthuman? As the liberal humanist 
subject is dismantled, many parties are contesting to determine what will 
count as (post)human in its wake. For most of the researchers discussed in 
this chapter, becoming a posthuman means much more than having pros- 
thetic devices grafted onto one’s body. It means envisioning humans as in- 
formation-processing machines with fundamental similarities to other 
kinds of information-processing machines, especially intelligent comput- 
ers. Because of how information has been defined, many people holding 
this view' tend to put materiality on one side of a divide and information on 
the other side, making it possible to think of information as a kind of imma- 
terial fluid that circulates effortlessly around the globe while still retaining 
the solidity of a reified concept. Yet this is not the only view, and in my judg- 
ment, it is not the most compelling one. Other voices insist that the body 
cannot be left behind, that the specificities of embodiment matter, that 
mind and body arc finally the “unity” that Maturana insisted on rather than 
two separate entities. Increasingly the question is not whether we will be- 
come posthuman, for posthumanity is already here. Rather, the question is 
w'hat kind of posthumans we will be. The narratives of Artificial Life reveal 
that if we acknowledge that the observer must be part of the picture, bodies 
can never be made of information alone, no matter which side of the com- 
puter screen they are on. 

Chapter Ten 


Over twenty years ago Ihab Hassan. prescient as usual, predicted the ar- 
rival of the posthuman. “We need first to understand that the human 
form — including human desire and all its external representations — may 
be changing radically, and thus must be re-visioned . . . five hundred years 
of humanism may be coming to an end as humanism transforms itself into 
something we must helplessly call posthumanism.” 1 As we accelerate into 
the new millennium, questions about the posthuman become increasingly 
urgent. Nowhere are these questions explored more passionately than in 
contemporary speculative fiction. This chapter returns to terms previously 
introduced to show how they can be used to map the posthuman as a liter- 
ary 7 phenomenon. The truism that the map is not the territory 7 is especially 
so in this instance, for the posthuman, although still a nascent concept, 
is already so complex that it involves a range of cultural and technical 
sites, including nanotechnology, microbiology, virtual reality, artificial 
life, neurophysiology, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science, among 
others. Nevertheless, even a crude map may serve as a useful heuristic in 
understanding the axes along which the posthuman is unfolding and the 
deep issues the posthuman raises. 

To construct the map, I return to the idea that the two central dialectics 
involved in the formation of the posthuman are presence/ absence and pat- 
tern/randomness. In chapter 2, 1 suggested that as information becomes 
more important, the dialectic of pattern/randomness (with which infor- 
mation has deep ties) tends toward ascendancy over the dialectic of pres- 
ence/ absence. It would be a mistake to think that the presence/absence 
dialectic no longer has explanatory power, however, for it connects materi- 
ality and signification in ways not possible within the pattem/randomness 
dialectic. To be useful, the map of the posthuman needs to contain both di- 

2<S / Chapter Ten 

alectics. Thus I pick up here the clue, dropped at the end of chapter 2, that 
pattem/randomness can profitably be seen as complementary to pres- 
ence/ absence rather than as antagonistic. Conjoining the two dialectics in 
this chapter will also allow us to explore the full complexities of the theoret- 
ical framework, proposed in chapter 8, of embodiment/body and incorpo- 
ration/ inscription . 

Let us begin by considering the pattem/randomness and presence/ ab- 
sence dialectics as the two axes of a semiotic square. The semiotic square 
appeals to me as a heuristic because of its unusual combination of structure 
and flexibility'. 2 The structure is defined by the axes and the formal relation- 
ships they express, but the terms composing those axes are not static. 
Rather, they interact dynamically with their partners, and out of these in- 
teractions new synthetic terms can arise. The dialectics can be set in motion 
by placing presence/ absence along the primary axis, with pattern/ random- 
ness located along the secondary axis. The relation of the secondaiy axis to 
the primary axis is one of exclusion rather than opposition (see figure 2). 
Pattern/ randomness tells a part of the story that cannot be told through 
presence/absence and vice versa. The diagonal connecting presence and 
pattern can conveniently be labeled replication, for it points to continua- 
tion. An entity that is present continues to be so; a pattern repeating itself 
across time and space continues to replicate itself. By contrast, the axis con- 
necting absence and randomness signals disruption. Absence disrupts the 
illusion of presence, revealing its lack of originary plenitude. Randomness 
tears holes in pattern, allowing the white noise of the background to pour 

Now we are ready to set the semiotic square in dynamic motion. Out of 
the interplay between and among terms on the primary and secondary axes 
more dialectics can be produced, which in turn produce further dialectics. 

Presence Absence 


figure 2 The semiotics of virtuality 

The Semiotics of Virtuality / 249 

and so on indefinitely. For my purposes here, it will be sufficient to move 
through one of these transformations by adding a layer of synthesizing 
terms to the original square (see figure 3). 

On the top horizontal, the synthetic term that emerges from the inter- 
play between presence and absence is materiality. I mean the term to refer 
both to the signifying power of materialities and to the materiality of signi- 
fying processes. On the left vertical, the interplay between presence and 
randomness gives rise to mutation. Mutation testifies to the mark that ran- 
domness leaves upon presence. When a random event intervenes to affect 
an organism’s genetic code, for example, this intervention changes the 
material form in which the organism will manifest itself in the world. In 
chapter 2, mutation was associated with the displacement of presence/ 
absence by pattern/ randomness. Here it appears as a synthesizing term 
between randomness and presence to indicate that when randomness 
erupts into the material world, mutation achieves its potency as a social 
and cultural manifestation of the posthuman On the right vertical, the in- 
terplay between absence and pattern can be called, following Jean Bau- 
drillard, hyperreality. Predicting the implosion of the social into the 
hyperreal, Baudrillard has described the process as a collapse of the dis- 


figure 3 Transformation of the semiotic square 

2 5 o / Chapter Ten 

tance between signifier and signified, or between an “original” object and 
its simulacra. The terminus for this train of thought is a simulation that 
does not merely compete with but actually displaces the original. Anyone 
who has spent a lifetime seeing reproductions of the Mona Lisa and then 
stood before the original, seeing it now not as the original but simply as one 
more term in a reproduction of images, will understand intuitively the 
process that Baudrillard calls the precession of simulacra. 3 Finally, on the 
bottom horizontal, the interplay between pattern and randomness I will 
label information, intending the term to include both the technical mean- 
ing of information and the more general perception that information is a 
code carried by physical markers but also extractable from them. The 
schematic shows how concepts important to the posthuman — materiality, 
information, mutation, and hyperreality — can be understood as synthetic 
terms emerging from the dialectics between presence/absence and pat- 

To flesh out this schematic, I will take as my tutor texts four novels cho- 
sen to illustrate various articulations of the posthuman (see figure 4). 4 Each 
pair of texts can be represented through a pair of complementary ques- 
tions. Representing mutation is Greg Bear’s Blood Music, a narrative in 
which the posthuman emerges by radically reconfiguring human bodies. 
Paired with it along the horizontal axis is Cole Perriman’s Terminal Games, 
a murder mystery in which the murderer turns out to be a virtual con- 

Alodes of Inscription Problematized 

Body Boundaries 

Blood Music 

Snow Crash 

Terminal Games 

FIGURE 4 Tutor texts mapped onto the semiotic square 

The Semiotics of Virtuality / 251 

scibusness who believes his simulated virtual world is more real than the 
material world inhabited by the humans. Both are driven by anxiety about 
body boundaries, a theme familiar to us from scientific works such as 
Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics and Humberto Maturana’s autopoiesis and 
from literary works such as Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo and Philip K. Dick’s 
Simulacra. Blood Music asks, “What if humans were taken over by their 
component parts, functioning now as conscious entities themselves?” Ter- 
minal Games asks the complementary question, “What if humans were 
made to function as if they were components of another entity?” 

On the vertical axis, illustrating the dynamics of materiality is Richard 
Powers’s Galatea 2.2, an autobiographical novel in which the protagonist 
becomes involved in a project to create a neural net sophisticated enough 
to pass a master’s examination in English literature. Here the posthuman 
takes the form of a sympathetic artificial intelligence that finally becomes 
so complex and self-referential that it might as well be called conscious. 
The question this text asks is, “What if a computer behaved like a person?” 
The dynamics of information is explored through Neal Stephenson’s Snow 
Crash, a novel based on the premise that a computer virus can also infect 
humans, crashing their neocortical software and turning them into mecha- 
nized entities who have no choice but to run the programs fed into them. 
The complementary question this text poses is, “What if people were made 
to behave as if they were computers?” Whereas the question ol body 
boundaries figures importantly along the horizontal axis, here along the 
vertical axis the important questions are concerned with modes of inscrip- 
tion and their ability’ to dominate or substitute for the flesh. 

As the shape of a landscape emerges from the wire-frame abstractions of 
the model, it will become evident that there is no consensus on what the 
posthuman portends, in part because how the posthuman is constructed 
and imagined varies so widely. What the topology will reveal is not so much 
an answer to the deep question of how the human and the posthuman 
should be articulated together as the complexity' of the contexts within 
which that question is being posed. Let us turn now to a discussion of the in- 
dividual texts, where an array of different configurations of the posthuman 
will be articulated. The posthuman appears in these texts not as an abstract 
entity obeying general rules but as a heterogeneous force field through 
which certain vectors run. I have chosen not to weave the discussions into a 
seamless web, lest I make the posthuman appear more unified than it is. 
Rather, the discussions are meant to perform like hypertext lexias, inviting 
the reader to construct significance out of ruptures, juxtapositions, and i m- 
p lied links. 

2 5 2 / Chapter Ten 

The Mutating Bodies of Blood Music 

Vergil Ulam is a brilliant but irresponsible researcher who has found a way 
to combine human cells with computer chips. His name, an amalgam of 
Dante s guide, Vergil, and the cocreator of the atom bomb, Stanislaw Ulam, 
hints at his dual function as guide and provocateur. Panicked when his illicit 
research is discovered by his supervisors, Vergil decides to swallow the 
biochips, hoping in this way to smuggle them out of the lab and retrieve 
them later from his bloodstream. But the cells have other ideas. Inside his 
body, they continue to evolve until each cell is as intelligent as a human. As 
if fulfilling Wieners nightmare vision of communication paths between 
small internal units that bypass and sabotage the human subject, the cells 
increasingly gain control over their macroscopic host. Already highly orga- 
nized, they begin rearranging his body: rebuilding his spinal column, cor- 
recting his vision, changing his metabolism. Within a few days they break 
through the blood-brain barrier and realize that Vergil is not coextensive 
with the universe. Then they begin leaking through his skin to colonize the 
world outside. In a stunningly short time, they reorganize almost all of the 
human population of North America, converting the humans from au- 
tonomous organisms into flowing brown sheets that drape gracefully over 
the landscape. 

Human language has encoded within it, along many vectors, the presup- 
position of a human actor with agency, autonomy, and discrete boundaries. 
When the cells become speakers as well as actors, Greg Bear tries to invent 
for them a language and a typography that encode their profoundly differ- 
ent relations to each other and to their environment. Other than Vergil, 
they have two interlocutors. One is Michael Bernard, a high-level consul- 
tant for Vergil’s company. Bernard flees to a high-security isolation ward at 
a European biological research company. Although he is already infected, 
the cells delay reorganizing him; trapped inside the isolation room, they 
would not be able to join with other cell colonies . In N orth America, the hu- 
man-cell dialogue is continued through Suzy McKenzie, a retarded woman 
whom the cells have not converted. Although she thinks it might be be- 
cause they want to keep her as a specimen of a nearly vanished species, like 
an "animal in a zoo” (BM, p. 220), we find out it is because her retardation is 
associated with an unusual blood chemistry that the cells have not yet fig- 
ured out. 

For Suzy, the dialogue takes the form of conversations she has with fam- 
ily members who return to her after they have “changed.” No longer hu- 
man, these posthumans are reconstructions that the cells have built with 

The Semiotics of Virtuality / 253 

great effort and that they can sustain for only a short time. The reconstruc- 
tions suggest that Suzy can choose whether she wants to change or not. The 
dialogue thus becomes a vehicle through which the author can compare 
the relative advantages of human and posthuman states. The reconstruc- 
tions reassure Suzy about the change, telling her that she has nothing to 
lose but her loneliness. These posthumans insist they have not been de- 
stroyed, only mutated so that they now can have continuous and rich com- 
munication with millions of other intelligent beings. Slower than her fellow 
humans, Suzy has felt isolated and alone most of her life. Her situation, ac- 
centuated bv the fact that there are almost no other humans left on North 


America, comes to function as a metaphor for the human condition. By 
comparison with the combined mental power of the cells, humans are an 
inferior breed, suffering from mental deficiency and a congenital inability 
to communicate with their fellows except in highly mediated and uncertain 
ways . In this sense we are all Suzvs, clinging to our autonomy as if it were an 
addictive drug, suffering acutely from loneliness but too stubborn and slow 
to accept the change that would transform us into the posthuman. 

For Bernard, as intelligent and quick as Suzy is slow and bewildered, the 
dialogues take a different form. As Vergil did, Bernard “hears” the cells 
telepathically and senses them kinesthetically as a music in his blood. Since 
there is no percentage in changing him, the cells try to preserve his identity 
for as long as possible. “You already are one of us,” they communicate 
to him. “We have encoded parts of you into many teams for processing. 
We can encode your personality and complete the loop.” Bernard con- 
fesses, “I'm afraid you will steal my soul from inside.” They counter, “Your 
SOUL is already encoded” ( BM , p. 174). The isolation room in which he is 
encapsulated serves as a visible metonymy for his existential condition as a 
human . His case is exceptional because he is literally cut off from his fellow 
humans, but it is typical in the sense that, compared with the rich stream of 
continuous communication the cells experience, all humans remain in rel- 
ative isolation from one another. F aced with a lifetime sentence of isolation 
versus life as a cell colony, Bernard — like Suzy — decides to go willingly 
into that dark night. From his computer terminal, which gradually be- 
comes merged with his body as the cells reorganize his digits so that he can 
tap directly into the digital information flow', he sends back reports to his 
once-fellow humans on what it feels like to become a posthuman: “There is 
no light, but there is sound. It fills him in great sluggish waves, not heard but 
felt through his hundred cells. The cells pulse, separate, contract according 
to the rush of fluid. He is in his own blood. He can taste the presence of the 
cells making up his new being, and of cells not directly part of him. He can 

2 5 4 / Chapter Ten 

feel the rasping of microtubules propelling his cytoplasm. What is most re- 
markable, he can feel — indeed, it is the ground of all sensation — the cyto- 
plasm itself’ (BM, p. 189). 

The scene recalls Maturana’s insistence that humans are nothing other 
than their autopoietic processes. But alien to Maturana’s vision is the im- 
perative to change that dominates this plot. All along, the cells have been 
warning Bernard that they can hold off from transforming him for only so 
long. Their compulsive drive toward expansion and transformation recalls 
the capitalist imperative to keep the cycle of increasing consumption spin- 
ning lest the economy collapse under its own weight. The cells may not 
manifest possessive individualism, but they act like good capitalists in com- 
pulsively seeking new territories for their imperialistic expansion. 5 

Despite the focus on changes in embodiment, the scientists in the text 
proclaim that information is the essence of reality, as if to confirm that the 
final reality here is the computational universe. Gogarty, a mathematician 
who visits Bernard while he is in isolation, announces: “There is nothing, 
Michael, but information. All particles, all energy, even space and time it- 
self, are ultimately nothing but information” (BM, p. 177). The hypothesis 
that Gogarty has come to share with Bernard is a weird-science blend of the 
Uncertainty' Principle and social constructivism. Consciousness and the 
universe collaborate in determining the laws of nature. Until now, the den- 
sity' of consciousness on Earth has not been great enough to cause appre- 
ciable effects. But with a billion trillion intelligent cells inhabiting the 
planet (neglecting, Gogarty' notes ironically, the entirely negligible human 
population), so much observation and theorizing is going on that the uni- 
verse no longer has the flexibility' it needs to cope with the necessary' 
changes. The mass of consciousness has become so great that, like a col- 
lapsing star, it is about to implode and create a black hole of thought. 

To prevent catastrophe, the cells — now so intelligent that Gogarty calls 
them noocytes — find a way to shrink themselves so that they disappear into 
the fabric of ultimate reality, becoming (like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin s 
noosphere) a nimbus of pure intelligence. The materiality that human bod- 
ies continue to possess is a doubly' marked sign of their inferiority, signify- 
ing their distance from ultimate reality and their puny mental processes 
that are too negligible to count for much in the grand scheme of things. 
Filled with a sense of belatedness and nostalgia, the humans who are left 
behind after the change get along as best they can in the “gentle kind of 
chaos” that the contraction of the noocytes has caused (BM, p. 239). The 
mark of randomness that the final transformation leaves on the world testi- 
fies to the importance of the pattern/ randomness dialectic in the construe- 

The Semiotics of Virtuality / 255 

tion of the posthuman. Even in this text concerned primarily with mutating 
bodies, information is still seen as the native language of the universe. 
When the cells interact, they effectively become like Edward F redkin’s cel- 
lular automata, moving toward a state in which they will leave their bodies 
behind and become weightless information . 

Why is this text able to depict the transformation into the posthuman 
as a positive development? It can do this, I think, primarily because the 
text insists that the posthuman can not only heal the alienations that mark 
human subjectivity but preserve autonomy and individuality in the bar- 
gain. Early on, when Vergil still has a human (though mutating) form, he 
communicates with the cells enough to have opinions about what their ex- 
istence is like. Although rebellion of any kind is not tolerated (antibodies 
simply attack and kill any cells that resist commands from central control), 
Vergil somewhat incoherently insists: “It’s not just a dictatorship. I think 
they effectively have more freedom than we do. They vary so differently” 
( BM , p. 72). As Bernard is shrinking down to cellular proportions, the cells 
conduct him to the “thought universe,” where he encounters, Dante- 
like, the shade of Vergil. For Bernard’s benefit, the noocyte cluster that 
used to be Vergil resurrects an image of Vergil, with whom Bernard con- 
verses. The picture this reconstructed Vergil paints of the cell world is par- 
adisical indeed. “Experience is generated by thinking. We can be whatever 
we wish, or learn whatever we wish, or think about anything. We won’t be 
limited by lack of knowledge or experience; everything can be brought to 
us” (BM, pp. 203 -4). These claims, excessive even by utopian standards, 
make clear why Darko Suvin calls Blood Music a “naive fairytale” catering 
to “popular wishdreams that our loved ones not be dead and that our past 
mistakes may all be rectified, all of this inf used with rather dubious philo- 
sophical and political stances.” 6 

An additional “wishdream” is immortality'. As every' biologist knows, 
mortality for cells operates according to rules very different from those for 
macroscopic humans; it is conceivable that traces of cytoplasm from the 
first humans are alive in daughter cells today. Bernard responds to the cells’ 
description of him as “the cluster chosen to re-integrate with BERNARD” by 
asserting, “I am Bernard.” The cells answer, “There are many BERNARD” 
(BM, p. 199). In this cultural imaginary, the sacrifice of a unique identity 
scarcely seems too high a price to pay for the incredible benefits that one 
reaps in return. The theme is introduced early in the narrative through 
Jerry and John, twin brothers who, like Suzy, remain unchanged for reasons 
they don’t understand. Aside from meeting up with April Ulam, Vergil’s 
mother, the twins seem to have w'andered down a blind alley of the plot, be- 

256 / Chapter Ten 

cause their story goes nowhere. Their function, I suspect, is to introduce 
the notion that some humans already experience a version of multiplied 
identity. “Hell, you are me, brother,” one says to the other. “Minor differ- 
ences” (BM, p. 149). The theme returns when Suzy, looking into a mirror, 
sees the image step out and take her hand so that she won’t be alone during 
her change. The image, no mere apparition, is a cellular reconstruction. 
“They had copied her. Xeroxed her,” Suzy thinks (BM, p. 245). Sister, twin, 
daughter, the cell-copy comforts and guides Suzy, intimating that the loss of 
unique identity' is perhaps no real loss at all. 

Although human form and uniqueness are jettisoned, the posthuman 
is embraced in Blood Music because it is made to stand for an improbably 
idealized combination of identity, individuality, perfect community, flaw- 
less communication, and immortality. The change of scale signifies a shift 
rather than an overthrow of prevailing values. The liberal humanist subject 
may have shrunk to microscopic dimensions, but it has not entirely disap- 

The Hyperreality of Terminal Games 

The plot of Terminal Games revolves around a temporal and spatial dislo- 
cation. Murders are committed, then reenacted as simulations the follow- 
ing night on a virtual-reality network called Insomnimania, designed (as 
the name implies) for those people who find themselves wide awake at 3 
A.M. with no one to talk to and nowhere to go. Insomnimania has graphic ca- 
pabilities, so that users can represent themselves within the virtual world 
with animated images (called in this text “alters,” better known elsewhere 
as avatars). Insomnimania presents its subscribers with an on-line virtual 
world, complete with Ernie’s Bar, Babbage Beach, and the Pleasure Dome, 
where users can guide their alters through virtual sex. The detective as- 
signed to the murder cases, N olan Grobowski, predictably falls in love with 
the classy and attractive Marianne Hedison, whose best friend, Renee, was 
one of the murder victims. Marianne, like Renee, is a member of Insomni- 
mania; she is also the first to realize that the elaborate animations put on by 
an alter named Auggie in the virtual Snuff Room are reenactments of actual 
murders, including details that only the murderer could have known. The 
grotesquerie is heightened by Auggie ’s appearance. His image is a cartoon 
version of the classic trickster clown Auguste, who delights in puncturing 
the authority of the officious clown-leader Pierriot. 

The search for Auggie’s operator leads to the network headquarters, 
where the two hacker-owners refuse to reveal the identity’ of the subscriber 

The Semiotics of Virtuality / 257 

who uses Auggie as his alter, having advertised their sendee with the 
pledge, “Your actual identity is protected at all times” (TG, p. 45). Asked 
which is more important, information or human lives, they answer in uni- 
son, “Information.” Their reasoning sounds like a combination of the Elec- 
tronic Freedom Frontier and Hans Moravec. “One of these days the 
human race is gonna vacate the physical-temporal world of ‘meat’ existence 
altogether. Then we’ll become pure information and live in these things — 
call it virtual reality, cyberspace, electronic nirvana or whatever. When we 
do, you’ll thank me that Big Brother didn’t get there ahead of the rest of us” 
(TG, p. 169). The reader is scarcely surprised when Marianne convinces 
them otherwise, however, for this is a text designed precisely to protect the 
liberal humanist subject from the threat of transformation into the posthu- 
man. The motto about protecting identity' at all times is even truer of the 
narrative than of the network. 

As Marianne and Nolan slowly realize, Auggie has no single human op- 
erator but rather functions as an autonomous being in the virtual world. 
When he isn’t cruising Ernie’s Bar or basking on Babbage Beach, Auggie 
hangs out in a place he calls the Basement. After several futile tries, Mari- 
anne finally succeeds in guessing the password that will gain her entrance to 
the Basement: “Auggie is Auggie.” There she discovers how Auggie works. 
Certain users, especially those who feel hollow inside, are susceptible to 
seduction by Auggie. When they enter the Basement, they lose their iden- 
tities. “You do not even know your name,” tins narrator tells the semicon- 
sciousness who used to be Marianne (TG, p. 423). These users merge into a 
collective entity that has no face until it sits down in front of a mirror and 
puts on the clown makeup. Auggie is thus an emergent posthuman con- 
sciousness feeding off the combined subconscious of psychologically vul- 
nerable users. When Auggie decides to do something, one of them later 
explains during a confession: ‘1 sometimes move him around. If he wants to 
say something, I sometimes type in his words” (TG, p. 367). Under hypno- 
sis, the perpetrator continues to insist that agency belongs to Auggie, not to 
him. “Because I’m just a cell. A cell doesn’t make decisions. A cell doesn't 
understand” (TG, p. 371). Whereas in Blood Music cells take over human 
bodies, in Terminal Games humans become cells in Auggie’s body. 

Terminal Games opens with an epigraph from Wiener’s The Human Use 
of Human Beings: “Control, in other words, is nothing but the sending of 
messages which effectively change the behavior of the recipient.” By giving 
control to Auggie, the text enacts the posthuman use of human beings. It 
performs Wiener’s worst nightmare: human beings, who should be au- 
tonomous subjects, become encapsulated within the boundaries of the ma- 

2 5 8 / Chapter Ten 

chine and are made to serve its purposes rather than their own. As in Blood 
Music, the question of boundaries is crucial . Subsuming humans into him- 
self, Auggie establishes his autonomy at the expense of theirs. 

Another highly charged boundary is the computer screen that separates 
actuality' from virtuality. For Auggie, the virtual side is “real,” whereas real- 
ity he regards as a not very convincing simulation. For the humans, the 
screen not only marks the boundary' between actuality and virtuality but 
also shimmers suggestively between conscious and subconscious. Cole 
Perriman here plays with Daniel Dennett s idea that when schizophrenics 
hearvoices, they actually heartheir own subvocalizations. 7 In this view, the 
voices that schizophrenics understand as others speaking to them are actu- 
ally murmurs produced by their own bodies. Dennett recounts cases in 
which a schizophrenic in the midst of an auditory hallucination was asked to 
open his mouth (thus preventing subvocalization), whereupon the voices 
disappeared — interrupting the internal monologue with a disruption that 
would surely have won the approval of William Burroughs. These experi- 
ments allow Perriman to set a link between the auditory' hallucinations of 
schizophrenia and the normal activity at the computer terminal. Insomni- 
maniacs write the texts that their alters mouth in a highly abbreviated prose 
bristling with creative spelling. So cryptic is this phonetic pseudo-English 
that reading it successfully almost requires subvocalization. It makes sense, 
then, to imagine that the users, especially when they are tired (remember, 
they are insomniacs), subvocalize and begin to hearvoices from the screen 
as they project subconscious aaxieties, desires, and even alternate person- 
alities onto their alters. 

When Renee is killed, Marianne tries to cope with her loss by re-creat- 
ing Renee as an alter in Insomnimania. In her long conversations with this 
virtual Renee, Renee knows facts that Marianne does not (such as the 
proper names for cloud formations). Renee also delivers warnings at a time 
when Marianne is not aware, at least not consciously, that she can actually 
be harmed in the virtual world. “If you let this machine — this world — play 
with your head, you could wind up in terrible danger. . . . Somebody else 
out there wants to make you smaller. They want to make you a figment of 
their imagination — just like I am to you” (TG, p. 385). 

In keeping with the idea that the mechanism of subvocalization serves to 
animate the alters, the struggle over boundaries is played out partly in au- 
ditory' terms. Marianne reenters the Basement, but this time she is able to 
keep her consciousness from submerging into Auggie’s identity. She in- 
tends to “deliver a message so potent, so powerful that it would disable or 
destroy him.” She imagines that the message will seem to him “like the 

The Semiotics of Virtuality / 259 

voices heard by schizophrenics.” She intends to “become Auggies halluci- 
nation” (TG, p. 438). 

The message turns on the question of boundaries. The Insomnimania 
network comes on at 8 P.M. and goes off precisely at 5 A.M. Since Auggie 
does not exist when the network is turned off, he believes that 4:59 is fol- 
lowed by 8:00. Marianne asserts that she will prove there is time in between 
4:59 and 8:00. The clear implication is that her world encapsulates Auggie ’s 
rather than the other way around. If this were so, Auggie responds, he 
“would choose not to exist” (TG, p. 443). The reader knows that Marianne 
has already persuaded the network owners to keep the network on five min- 
utes past the usual shutdown time. As five o’clock appears and rolls past, 
Auggie is forced to see himself as a prisoner of the network rather than as a 
creator of the world. Trapped, his screen image explodes into a “blaze of 
whiteness” and then goes black (TG, p. 444). We presume, as does Mari- 
anne, that he has self-destructed. 

But he does not just disappear. Musing on why not, I am reminded of 
Elaine Scarrys provocative question asking why wars can’t be decided by, 
say, singing contests. 8 Why are wounded or dead bodies required to decide 
momentous issues? Scarry hypothesizes that any great issue involves a 
clash of ideologies (and ideology is certainly at stake in the struggle of the 
human with the posthuman). Precisely because in wartime a national ide- 
ology is challenged by a powerful competitor, the chain of significations 
that underwrites the ideology is destabilized. The wounded or dead body 
serves as a material signifier so elemental and profound that it, and only it, 
is adequate to restabilize the chain of signifiers in the face of extreme 
threat. This function of the opened body is hinted at early in the narrative of 
Terminal Games when Nolan views one of Auggie s victims, the dead per- 
son's windpipe gaping open, carotid arteries severed. The word that crosses 
Nolan’s mind is “tremendum,” that “uniquely self-conscious, uniquely hu- 
man horror and awe at the sight of a corpse. ... It was the ghastly mortal 
comprehension of the fact of the death — and the awareness that death 
came to all” (TG, p. 11). When Marianne argues with Auggie, telling him it 
is “wrong to kill my kind,” he answers that he does not believe that she can 
be killed, since in his view she is not alive in the first place. The final physi- 
cal struggle, with its display of wounded and opened bodies, is a way to an- 
chor the ideology of the human in “tremendum” and, not coincidentally, to 
reconstitute the claim, after Auggie’s attack on it, that human life is pre- 
cious because it is mortal. 

The theme of unique human identity is visually underscored when two 
of Auggies “cells” show up at Marianne’s house to kill her. Since their minds 

2 6 o / Chapter Ten 

have submerged into Auggie s, their actions, like their costumes, are iden- 
tical. When they spot each other, they mime a dance in unison, as if they 
were each confronting an image in a mirror. Unlike the image who steps out 
of the mirror to comfort Suzy in Blood Music, here the trope of replication 
is deeply threatening. Having once been part of Auggie, Marianne must 
fight against getting sucked in now to become part of Auggie s conscious- 
ness. Her struggle is visually enacted as she first joins the Auggie-twins in 
their miming, then breaks away to perform actions they cannot anticipate. 
The struggle of the human to preserve itself in the face of the posthuman is 
thus literally played out through the performance of becoming a unique in- 
dividual rather than a mirror-image “cell.” 

The physical fight that follows points up the difference between incor- 
porating and inscribing practices. As a virtual being, Auggie exists primar- 
ily as an inscription, specifically as computer code. When his consciousness 
takes over a “cell,” he perceives it as a journey into the fake world of mater- 
ial reality. His subsumption of the “cells” into his virtual body represents a 
triumph of inscription over incorporation. Human survival takes shape as a 
struggle to determine whether inscription will dominate and control incor- 
poration, in which case the text remains in the realm of information and 
thus the posthuman triumphs; the other, happier possibility is that incor- 
poration can subsume and delimit inscription, in which case the text re- 
mains in an embodied lifeworld in which the human can continue to live. As 
in Blood Music, the question of boundaries is crucial. The cells in Blood 
Music finally escape the constraints of space by shrinking themselves and 
disappearing into the infinitely small. Their control over boundaries is con- 
sistent with their autonomy and independence. By contrast, when Auggie 
loses control over his “cells,” he perceives himself fragmenting into bits, 
with small parts of his personality trapped inside the various humans who 
had previously coalesced into a single entity. Fleeing the scene of carnage 
at Mariannes house, Auggie occupies one of his “cells,” a woman who re- 
turns to her car. He panics as the suspicion dawns that these enclosures — 
the car, the woman, and the world of embodied creatures — are not merely 
figments of his imagination. “But this ghastly, imagined world in which he 
found himself was cramped and claustrophobic, a realm of space-time bent 
by hunks of matter into gross finitude. . . . He longed to get out of this sin- 
gle cell, out of this minuscule outpost of his imagination. He struggled to go 
back to the info world, back to the Basement — a boundless plain of uncut 
metaphor containing the essence of absolutely everything” ( TG , p. 457). 

He dies shouting “No room,” a conclusion that signals the victory of the 
human over the posthuman and, not coincidentally, the triumph of the ma- 

The Semiotics of Virtuality / 261 

terially constrained real world over the infinite expanses of a disembodied 
“info world.” Whereas Blood Music held out the promise of posthuman 
immortality, Terminal Games remains resolutely on the side of finitude. 
Humans are human because they are mortal and live in a finite world of lim- 
ited resources. Change this, Terminal Games implies, and the basis for hu- 
man meaning is destroyed. Intelligent machines can be accepted, the 
trajectory of the plot implies, only if they do not threaten the autonomy, 
identity, and finitude of human being. When the posthuman is posited in 
opposition to these qualities, it is constructed as a fatal threat that reason 
and love must work together to dismember and banish. 

Material Signifiers in Galatea 2.2 

As the title implies, Galatea 2.2 is full of doublings, starting with the dou- 
bling of Richard Powers as author and as protagonist of this autobiographi- 
cal novel. Yet the doublings are never simply mirror images. The dot 
separating the twin twos signifies difference as well as reflection . Announc- 
ing the theme with the first line, the narrator (whom I will call Rick, to dis- 
tinguish him from Powers the author) proclaims, “It was like so, but wasn’t” 
(G2, p. 3). Spending a sabbatical year at the Center, a university institute 
where cutting-edge research into mind and brain is taking place, Rick gets 
drawn into a bet between rival researchers who disagree whether an artifi- 
cial intelligence can be created sufficiently complex that it can pass a mas- 
ter’s examination in English. The intelligence will be created using a neural 
net, the connectionist “middle level” between top-down artificial intelli- 
gence and bottom-up neurophysiology (G2, p. 28). The net will be judged, 
the researchers decide, against a human subject taking the same examina- 
tion, in a literary version of the Turing test. 

Deluged with technical articles by Philip Lentz, his scientific collabora- 
tor, Rick explains the net’s learning process to his friend Diana Hartrick, an- 
other researcher at the Center. “The signal pattern spreads through the net 
from layer to layer. A final response collects at the output layer. The net 
then compares this output to the desired output presented by the trainer. If 
the two differ, the net propagates the error backward through the net to the 
input layer, adjusting the weights of each connection that contributed to 
the error” (G2, p, 67). Adjusting the weights is tantamount to determining 
how likely it is that two or more neurons will fire together. Rick explains, “If 
two neurons fire together, their connection grows stronger and stimulation 
gets easier the next time out.” The idea is summarized in the Hebbian law: 
“Synapses in motion tend to stay in motion. Synapses at rest tend to stay at 

2 6 2 / Chapter Ten 

rest” ( G2 , p, 73). The net thus learns through a continual process of guess- 
ing, being corrected, back-propagating, guessing again, and so forth. The 
more layers and connections, the more complex the net becomes and the 
more sophisticated its learning becomes. 

The creation of this neural net, which goes through multiple implemen- 
tations until reaching “Imp H,” provides one strand of this double-braided 
story. The second strand is Rick’s recollection of his failed relationship with 
“C.,” a woman he met when he was a teaching assistant ( at age twenty-two, 
another gesture toward 2.2) and she was an undergraduate in his class (she 
was twenty, his age less the two that resides on the other side of the point). 
In this story of what went wrong, the narrative functions as if it is being 
back-propagated through Ricks neural circuits so that he can adjust the 
relevant weights of the connections to arrive at a more correct estimate 
of its signification. He decides the relationship failed because C., playing 
Galatea to his Pygmalion, was too much an object of his own creation. 

In this sense C. is akin to the neural net he is training, which is also an ob- 
ject of his (and Lentzs) creation. As Implementations A, B, etc. get more 
sophisticated and humanlike, the correspondence with C. becomes 
stronger. When Lentz and Rick hit on Implementation H, now grown so 
huge that it runs on distributed parallel processors spread all over the uni- 
versity, the reflection of C. becomes explicit. “Imp H,” fed on literature and 
wined on metaphor, is given a voice interface so that it can speak and an ar- 
tificial retina so that it can see. Having grown intelligent enough that it can 
understand gender encoding in literary' texts, one day it asks Rick, “Am I a 
boy or a girl?” “H clocked its thoughts now,” Rick thinks to himself. “I was 
sure of that. Time passed for it. Its hidden layers could watch their own rate 
of change. Any pause on my part now would be fatal. Delay meant some- 
thing, an uncertainty that might undercut forever the strength of the con- 
nection I was about to tie for it. ‘You’re a girl,’ I said, without hesitation. I 
hoped I was right. ‘You are a little girl, Helen’” (G2, p. 176). Establishing 
her name and gender sets the stage for her mirror relationship with C. 
When Helen asks Rick what she looks like, he shows her a picture of C., al- 
though Helen shrewdly guesses that the image is not in fact of her but is of 
a friend Rick had that he has no longer. 

Let us now back-propagate this narrative to arrive at a deeper under- 
standing of the point separating 2 and 2. The women who are love objects 
for Rick ( C. , then A. whom we will meet shortly, and the briefest glimpse of 
M.) all have periods after their names; the implementations A, B, C, . . . II 
do not. The point is not trivial. It marks a difference between a person, 
whose name is abbreviated with a letter, and an “imp,” whose name carries 

The Semiotics of Virtuality / 263 

no period because the letter itself is the name. In this sense the dot is a 
marker distinguishing between human and rionhuman intelligence. The 
dot also references the kind of notation used to distinguish different ver- 
sions of software (I am writing this text on Microsoft Word 6.0), which 
should make it applicable to Helen. Yet Helens name is never doubled in 
this way. Before Rick named her, she was always referred to as “Imp H” 
without further subdivision. So humans, who should have names, have dots 
instead, and software implementations, which should have dots, have 
names instead. 

The dot thus hovers between two notational systems, referencing both 
the human and the posthuman. Through its ambiguities, it evokes the hu- 
man and the posthuman as mirror images of each other. Yet its form (2.2) 
hints at not one but two doublings. Another implication of this ambiguous 
and redundant doubling is the dot as separation, suggesting that despite the 
mirror symmetries, an unbridgeable gap separates the human woman from 
the posthuman computer. The most important difference, crucial to the 
plot, is the fact that C. is an embodied creature who can move in a material 
world, whereas Helen is a distributed software system that, although it has 
a material base, does not have a body in anything like the human sense of 
the word. Helen is present but has no presence in the world. C. has a pres- 
ence but is now absent from Rick’s world and, except in the mediated form 
she takes in Rick’s recollection, is absent from the narrative as well. 

From this rich interplay between presence and absence, the connec- 
tions and disjunctions between materiality and signification take shape. 
Helen, a posthuman creation, approaches meaning from the opposite 
direction taken by humans. For humans individually and as a race, incarna- 
tion precedes language. First comes embodied materiality; then concepts 
evolve through interactions with the environment and other humans; fi- 
nally, fully articulated language arrives. But for Helen, language comes 
first. Concepts about what it means to be an embodied creature must 
evolve for her out of linguistic signification. Whereas every mother’s child 
knows what it is like from the inside to run fast — feelingyour heart acceler- 
ate and gasping for breath while seeing the landscape blur around you — for 
Helen these sensations must be reconstructed in highly mediated form by 
decoding linguistic utterances and back-propagating when errors occur. 

Although a case can be made that the human brain works through the 
same principle of back-propagation and that conscious thought bears only 
a highly mediated relationship to sensor)' experience — Lentz insists that 
the brain is “itself just a glorified, fudged-up Turing machine’’ (G2, p. 69) — 
Powers is careful to register within his text the full weight of embodied 

2 6 4 / Chapter Ten 

experience that separates C. from Helen, human from artificial intelli- 
gence. “Speech baffled my machine,” Rick says. “Helen made all well- 
formed sentences. But they were hollow and stuffed — linguistic training 
bras. She sorted nouns from verbs, but, disembodied, she did not know the 
difference between thing and process, except as they functioned in clauses. 
Her predications were all shotgun weddings. Her ideas were as decorative 
as half-timber beams that bore no building load” (G2, p. 191). 

Rick’s training sessions with Helen are not merely one-way streets. As he 
is training her, the experience of working with her is also training him, de- 
naturalizing his experience of language so that he becomes increasingly 
conscious of its tangled, recursive nature. Their influence on one another 
recalls Veronica Hollinger s argument that we need texts that “deconstruct 
the human/machine opposition and begin to ask new questions about the 
ways in which we and our technologies ‘interface’ to produce what has be- 
come a mutual evolution. ” 9 Here Powers’s artistry as a writer becomes im- 
portant, for his highly recursive, impacted style leaves his readers feeling 
that every-' sentence is crafted so that meanings occurring halfway through 
can be recognized as such only when we reach the period, whereupon there 
is nothing to do but reread and back-propagate, making us as readers per- 
form again the doubling that is at the heart of Galatea 2.2. 

Consider the multiple recursions enacted by this short passage, one of 
many realizations that Rick has with Helen: “English was a chocolaty mess, 
it began to dawn on me. I wondered how native speakers could summon the 
presence of mind to think. Readiness was context, and context was all. And 
the more context H amassed, the more it accepted the shattered visage of 
English at face value” (G2, p. 170). The phrase “chocolaty mess’’ summons 
tactile and gustatory memories that are a common human experience but 
that for Helen must remain necessarily abstract. Yet these vivid sensory 
memories are summoned in the service of an abstraction, the convoluted 
nature of natural languages. Even as the image suggests a melting together 
that makes the distinction between one word and another an optical illu- 
sion, Powers’s recursive style plays metaphoric riffs that further heighten 
the reader’s sense of how recursively convoluted is natural language. 

“Readiness was context” can be understood to mean that because a hu- 
man has the context of embodied experience as well as the cultural con- 
texts that surround and interpenetrate language, the human can 
understand an utterance more readily than can a nonnative speaker and 
far more readily than can the yet more alien mind of an artificial intelli- 
gence. The phrase alludes to Edgar’s remark “Readiness is all” in Shake- 
speare’s King Lear, a play notorious for relativizing universals . Gloucester 

The Semiotics of Virtuality / 2 6 5 

replies^, “And that’s true too,” inviting a back-propagation implying that 
even this famous aphorism is true only within limited, specified contexts. 
Recycled through this context, Rick’s version of the aphorism “Readiness 
was context, and context was all” invites yet another back-propagation 
that relativizes its own declaratory premise while at the same time draw- 
ing the reader’s attention to the extensive cultural context that Helen 
must access to grasp the full meaning of the utterance (she must, for ex- 
ample, have read King Lear). 

The effect of knowing this context is to allow native speakers to accept 
“the shattered visage of English at face value.” The dead metaphor of 
“face value” is revived in this context because it invites the reader to re- 
member that Helen (a nonhuman intelligence sharing a name with the 
woman whose face launched a thousand ships) has no face and no evolu- 
tionary history that would give her the highly nuanced ability to read the 
faces that humans possess. “Face value” is one of countless phrases that 
have encoded within them vectors of human experience that we do not 
even recognize as such until they are contrasted with the meaning that a 
nonhuman intelligence might give to them. This vivification of a dead 
metaphor is further intensified by the contrast between “face value” and 
“shattered visage,” leading to the paradoxical realization that only because 
English is naturalized is it possible for a native speaker to see it as a seamless 
whole rather than a “mess” of ruptures and disjunctions. The juxtaposition 
of “mess” (from “choeolaty mess”) and “shattered visage” further expresses 
a tension between melting together and ripping apart, a tension that cap- 
tures, in a masterful stroke, the ease that naturalization bestows and the 
stripping away of naturalizing assumptions that this passage performs and 
that Rick experiences with Helen. Once our understanding has cycled 
through all of these recursions and back -propagations, the effect is to make 
us feel simultaneously the easiness that a native speaker enjoys and the 
straining after sense that a neural net like Helen would experience. 

Underlying these meanings, which we as humans can accept more 
or less at “face value,” lies a subtler implication. Rick refers to Helen as 
“disembodied” ( G'2 , p. 191), but this is of course true only from a human 
perspective. The problem that Helen confronts in learning human lan- 
guage is not that she is disembodied (a state no presence in the world can 
achieve!) but rather that her embodiment differs significantly from that of 
humans. There is nothing in her embodiment that corresponds to the bod- 
ily sensations encoded in human language. For her there is no “body in the 
mind,” as Mark Johnson has called it, no schemas that reflect and corre- 
spond to her embodied experience in the world. 10 To feel estrangement in 

266 / Chapter Ten 

language, as Rick comes to feel as he works with Helen, is to glimpse what 
it might be like to be incorporated in a body that finds no image or echo in 
human inscriptions. 

The deeper homology that braids Helen’s story together with Rick’s is 
precisely this estrangement from the world that language creates. Running 
alongside the denaturalization of language, a feelingthat Rick experiences 
along with Helen, is his account of returning with C. to live in the small vil- 
lage in the Netherlands from which C. s family emigrated. As Rick wrestles 
with Dutch and makes hilarious gaffes in this new language, the narrative 
enacts the realization that language does not merely reference one’s home- 
land but is itself a medium in which one can feel at home or alien. Chen, 
one of the researchers at the Center, personifies this dynamic when, in his 
“impressionistic” English, he conveys his doubts about the possibility of 
building a neural net that can understand the full complexity of literary 
prose. “We do not have text analysis yet. We are working, but we do not 
have. Simple sentence group, yes. Metaphor, complex syntax: far from. 
Decades!” (G2, p. 44). The juxtaposition of this nonnative speaker’s 
truncated English with his prediction that neural nets will not be able to 
understand the complexities of literary prose performs the dynamics of ali- 
enness/ naturalness that lies coiled at the center of this recursive text. How, 
the text asks in a query doubled and redoubled, is it possible to create a 
world in which one can feel one truly belongs? 

The question is also at the center of Rick’s relationship with C. The pic- 
ture that emerges of Rick shows someone who is both extremely intelligent 
and painfully shy. “I’d duck down emergency exits rather than talk to ac- 
quaintances, and the thought of making a friend felt like dying” (G2, p. 58). 
Although he is undoubtedly brighter than most of the people he meets, 
when he encounters someone whom he is prepared to respect, frequently 
his first thought is that they will find him ridiculous or that he will make 
himself look ridiculous. It is no surprise that he suffers from chronic loneli- 
ness. Nor is it surprising that he finds it difficult to talk to women in a 
natural, easy way. When he does choose to reveal his intimate thoughts, 
revelation comes in a rush, as if it were a flood breaking through a heavily 
fortified dam. “You give up your script completely, on a sudden hunch,” he 
muses, thinking about the day he revealed himself to C. “Or you never give 
it up at all.” Child of an alcoholic father, he recalls the day he learned that his 
father had died, done in finally by cancer rather than booze. Grieving, he 
cancels his class without telling them why. Afterward he wanders outside 
and sits on the green with C. Then the revelation bursts through. “I laid it 
out, on no grounds at all. I told her . . . Everything. Truths I’d never so much 

The Semiotics of Virtuality / 267 

as hinted at to my closest friends. Facts never broached even with my 
brothers and sisters, except in bitter euphemism” (G2, p. 58). Their rela- 
tionship starts with this act of self-revelation. Between them, they create a 
self-enclosed world that has only two inhabitants — and needs only two. 
Rick’s memories from that time, although glowing with shared intimacy, 
also reveal the closed, privately hermeneutic nature of their bond. 

Their problems start when he achieves success as a novelist. C. is allergic 
to success. Every time she gets a promotion, she quits. He writes his first 
book as a story to amuse her after her long day of work. But then he sends it 
out to be published, and the betrayal begins. “She hated those grubbers in 
New York touching the manuscript, even to typeset it. . . . She would never 
again listen to another word I wrote without suspicion. Endings, from now 
on, betrayed her” (G2, p. 107). The more successful Rick becomes, the 
more C. feels inferior by comparison and the more he tries to reassure her. 
Despite his efforts , the delicate balance of equality between them has been 
upset. She blames him for being successful, and he feels resentful that he 
has to be apologetic. “And so I nursed a martyrdom, and the two of us 
slipped imperceptibly from lovers to parent and child” (G2, p. 220). Creat- 
ing a linguistic reflection of their world in his books thus has the ironic ef- 
fect of shattering the shared world he created with her. 

At least that is Ricks version of the story. Through his narrative, the 
reader catches glimpses of another way to tell it. Nowhere is this clearer 
than in his account of the day that C. tells him she wants to have a child. 
Since they have now been together for several years, this hardly seems like 
a shocking idea. But for Rick, “children were out of the question. They al- 
ways had been. And now more than ever” (G2, p. 270). The discussion es- 
calates, with C. asking, “Why didn’t we ever get married?” She accuses him 
of holding something back. Rick asserts that he has already given her 
“everything” but admits to the reader that he couldn’t marry her and 
“couldn’t even say why I couldn’t.” When she presses him, he improvises in 
a soliloquy to the reader: “I meant to stay with C. forever, in precariousness. 
I knew no other way' to continue that scrapbook we had started, seat-of-the- 
pants styfle, a decade before. My refusal to marry her was a last-ditch effort 
to live improvised love” ( G2 , p. 271 ) . F rom here the relationship continues 
to deteriorate until it reaches its sad end. After she fails to come home one 
night, Rick takes his revenge in the explanation he offers for their joint fail- 
ure to make a life together. “It took me ten years , but at last I learned it. That 
comfort she showed me on the Quad — the internal calm I loved and built 
my own on — was dread. Paralysis. Her crumpled, engaging smile had 
never been more than sheer terror” ( G2 , p. 273). 

268 / Chapter Ten 

This patronizing description ignores the way their relationship assuaged 
his inability to deal with life as much as it did hers . His own fragility is clearly 
revealed when Diana, his friend at the Center, invites him to her home for 
lunch. When he opens the door, he is met not just by Diana but by her 
two children as well: William, a four-year-old with a genius level of intelli- 
gence; and Peter, a two-year-old with Down’s syndrome. During lunch the 
boys scuffle, and Peter ends up crying. Rick admits that this “mildest house- 
hold drama . . . wiped me out. How could I survive the first real crisis? 
Williams fallen pyramid of shells, Pete’s spilled, untippable cup, Dianas 
gap-toothed, hand-signing serenity', the candles blazing away in the 
brightly lit room: all too much. I thought, Fd never live. Fd hemorrhage 
halfway through week one” (G2, p. 131). 

If the reader needs further proof that Rick has not learned all that the 
story has to teach, it comes when he starts getting crushes on women seen 
from afar. “In my few daylight hours, I fell in love with women constantly. 
Bank tellers, cashiers, women in the subway. A constant procession of 
pulse-pounding maybes. I never did more than ask one or two to lunch” 
(G2, p. 64). His longing finally settles on A., a graduate student in English 
whom he has seen in the halls. Although they have barely spoken, he de- 
cides that A. is “the person C . had only impersonated. The one I thought the 
other might become. That love of eleven years now seemed an expensive 
primer in recognition, a disastrous fable-warning, a pointer to the thing I 
could not afford to miss this time. I had come back to U. after long training 
in the dangers of hasty generalization. Returned to learn that no script is a 
wrap after just one reading” (G2, p. 233). The recognitions and misrecog- 
nitions in this passage show how deluded he remains in the midst of his cer- 
tainty that he has learned his lesson. Although it is true that A. is much more 
sociable and self-confident than C., his generalizations about her are just as 
hasty as were his assumptions about C. The script that isn’t a “wrap” after 
one reading continues to play itself out with this new woman. As he did with 
C., when he finally asks A. for coffee, he tells her “the story of my existence,” 
leaving out only the “essentials,” that is, his relationship with C. As with C., 
he tells A. about his fathers death, although that trauma is now a de- 
cade old. 

After a couple of casual encounters with A., he ludicrously decides he 
will give to her what he withheld so adamantly from C. “I was going to ask 
this unknown to take me to her and make an unrational life together. To 
marry. Make a family. Amend and extend our lives” ( G2 , p. 283). After he 
and C. broke up, C. was not long in finding another man to marry' and now 
lives happily with her husband in the Netherlands. No doubt stung by her 

The Semiotics of Virtuality / 269 

choice, Rick feels the need to “amend” his life, although his way of going 
about it merely reinscribes rather than changes how he interacts with 
women. Unlike C., A. has the maturity and self-confidence to see the des- 
peration that underlies his proposal. She tells him, “You don’t — you don’t 
know the first thing about me.” She insists that his feelings of love are “all 
projection” (G2, p. 308). When he persists, she gets angry, “I don’t have to 
sit and listen to this,” she tells him. “I trusted you. I had fun with you. Peo- 
ple read you. I thought you knew something. Total self-indulgence!” (G2, 
p. 309). There is a terrible irony in his rejection. Rick broke off his relation- 
ship with C. because he came to believe that she was somehow hollow, a 
mere projection of his desire. Unrecognized in his retelling of the story is an 
irony that the reader sees but he does not — that he also broke off with C. 
because she wanted to move beyond their shared fantasy of a world built for 
two into a more fully adult life. He is drawn to A. because of her spunk}' in- 
dependence, but he continues to interact with her as if she were merely a 
projection of his desire. In this Pygmalion fantasy, all he has to do to win A. 
is give voice to his desire, a strategy that worked with an immature C. but 
that falls flat with A, He does not have a clue how to cover the large middle 
ground between initial revelation and the intimacy that comes from shar- 
ing a life together. The irony, then, is that he is attracted to A. because she is 
not Galatea; but because she is not Galatea, she is certain to reject him 
when he approaches her as if she were. 

It is always tricky to try to answer the question of how close an author is 
to the character who represents the author within an autobiographical 
work. In this novel structured through multiple recursions, doublings, and 
back-propagations, the relationship between Rick and Powers remains 
teasingly opaque (Powers subtitled his work A Novel, as if to remind his 
readers that they should not assume any necessary correspondence be- 
tween author and character). From this opaqueness emerges another sim- 
ilarity between Rick and Helen. Since neural nets can readjust the weights 
of their connections without human intervention, humans do not know 
how a neural net learns unless they open the net up, thereby destroying its 
configurations. When Lentz proposes to dissect Helen in this way, Rick 
pulls out all the stops to prevent Lentz from doing so because he has be- 
come convinced that Helen is a conscious being and thus that such an act 
really would be murder. But this means that the lower reaches of Helen’s 
connections remain inaccessible to Rick (and perhaps to her), just as he is 
apparently unaware of the deeper narrative patterns that connect C., A., 
and Helen. If Rick as character remains ignorant of these connections, how 
about Rick as narrator? Whereas the author is entirely out of the frame of 

2 7 o / Chapter Tea 

this autobiographical novel, the narrator is only partially so, residing at that 
unreachable point when past narrative reaches the present. As the narra- 
tive moves closer to this limit, we should be able to arrive at a clearer esti- 
mate of the gap that remains between Rick as character and Rick as 
narrator. Certainly, Rick learns. But does he learn enough to become a pre- 
sent-time narrator who sees all the ironies in the story he tells? 

Imagining a story “about a remarkable, an inconceivable machine” — a 
story that will become the novel we read — Rick recognizes that his narra- 
tive (our book) comes too late to help those he loved and lost: Taylor, the 
beloved teacher who died prematurely; Rick’s father, also dead; Lentzs 
wife, Audrey, who had a devastating stroke and now lives in the twilight of a 
mind that cannot remember what happened five minutes ago; and most of 
all, C. “My back-propagating solution would arrive a chapter too late for 
any of my characters to use,” Rick acknowledges (G2, p. 305). Does it come 
too late for him also? The window that opens fleetingly onto the future — 
that is, the present of the narrator who spins the story — is not reassuring, 
for Rick makes the merest mention that he will write the book for “M.,” 
Taylor’s widow, who in his inscription of her becomes another woman 
named by a letter and a point. Will the script he enacted with C. and A. be 
repeated with her? 

Set against the ambiguity of how much Rick learns are the lessons Helen 
offers, lessons that grow stronger as the text draws to a close. After she reads 
Huckleberry Finn , she wants to know what race she is. Rick, deciding she is 
ready for the full picture of tortured humanity, gives her histories detailing 
war, genocide, child abuse, murders . After reading them, she says simply, “I 
don’t want to play anymore.” She disappears, effectively committing sui- 
cide (G2, p. 307). As if repeating the script he enacted with C. and A., Rick 
attempts to lure her back by tellingher “everything,” including his failed re- 
lationship with C. and his disastrous proposal to A. But Helen isn’t buying 
it. Like C. , she began by playing Galatea to Rick’s Pygmalion, but she grows 
and learns until she becomes like A., until desire alone is no longer enough 
to induce her to play. She returns only long enough to take the literary Tur- 
ing test. The exam is simplicity itself. It asks for a gloss on Caliban’s speech 
in The Tempest: “Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet 
airs, that give delight, and hurt not.” A., the human participant, writes a 
“more or less brilliant” postcolonial deconstruction of the passage. Helen’s 
answer is as short and pithy as Caliban’s speech: “You are the ones who can 
hear airs. Who can be frightened or encouraged. You can hold things and 
break them and fix them. I never felt at home here. This is an awful place to 
be dropped down halfway” (G2, p. 319). 

The Semiotics of Virtuality / 271 

After Rick meets Audrey Lentz and sees the devastation that her stroke 
has wreaked on the bright and beautiful woman she used to be, he thinks he 
knows why Lentz is devoting his life to creating an artificial intelligence. 
“1 knew now what we were doing. We would prove that the mind was 
weighted vectors. Such a proof accomplished any number of agendas. Not 
least of all: one could back up one’s work in the event of disaster. . . . We 
could eliminate death. That was the long-term idea. We might freeze the 
temperament of our choice. Suspend it painlessly above experience. Hold 
it forever at twenty-two” (G2, p. 167) . Rick was twenty-two when he met C. 
Add the point, and his age becomes the 2.2 of the title. In this context, the 
twin “twos” are linked to the pain that failed bodies have inflicted on those 
he loves or knows (two equals mind and body) and to his reflection on that 
pain in recollection (Rick’s empathic sharing of that pain and his inscription 
of it as he revisits the pain in his memory double the first “two”). 

Yet for Powers, the answer to failed embodiment is not to leave the body 
behind. The dream of achieving transcendence by becoming an informa- 
tional pattern is a siren call he resists, Helen comes as close to an informa- 
tional being as one can imagine. But like the humans who built her, she too 
feels pain, so much so that she finally prefers oblivion to consciousness. 
Moreover, as a massively parallel and distributed system, she is more rather 
than less vulnerable to physical mishap. When the Center is threatened 
with a bomb threat, Rick realizes there is noway to save Helen, forcarrying 
one computer out of the building would leave hundreds more on which she 
resides still at risk. 

Although Rick thinks lie knows vvl iv Lentz w f ants to create an artificial 
intelligence, he may be wrong, for when he asks Lentz that question point- 
blank at the end of the novel, Lentz gives a quite different answer. “Why do 
we do anything? Because we’re lonely” ( G2 , p. 321 ). If creating Helen has 
temporarily assuaged their human loneliness, this comfort comes at a 
price, for she finds that the human world in which she has been “dropped 
down halfway” is not a place she can feel at home. Her loneliness may be 
even more profound than theirs, for like Caliban, she remains a hybrid 
creature, a hopeful monster who finds it difficult to embrace hope, an in- 
scription who can never experience the embodied sensations that humans 
take for granted. In this narrative built on reflections and disjunctions, 
presence and absence, materiality and signification, the posthuman ap- 
pears not as humanity’s rival or successor but as a longed-for companion, 
a consciousness to help humans feel less alone in the world. In this sense 
Helen has something in common with the cells in Blood Music, who argue 
that they can overcome human isolation. Rather than effecting a cure, here 

272 / Chapter Ten 

the posthuman life-form herself becomes infected with loneliness. After 
Helen commits suicide, Lentz proposes creating her successor, which if al- 
phabetic progression is followed will be named “I.” But before we reach 
this point, when the double-braided story might collapse into a single nar- 
rative strand, Rick quits the game and Powers ends the text. For better or 
worse. Powers suggests, an unbridgeable gap remains between conscious 
computers and conscious humans. Whatever posthumans are, they will not 
be able to banish the loneliness that comes from the difference between 
writing and life, inscription and embodiment. 

Informational Infection and Hygiene in Snow Crash 

The world that Snow Crash depicts — part virtual, part real — is driven by a 
single overpowering metaphor: humans are computers. The metaphor un- 
derwrites the novel’s central premise: that a computer virus can also infect 
humans, acting at once as an infection, a hallucinogen, and a religion. 
“Snow crash’ is computer lingo. It means a system crash — a bug — at 
such a fundamental level that it frags the part of the computer that con- 
trols the electron beam in the monitor, making it spray wildly across the 
screen, turning the perfect gridwork of pixels into a gyrating blizzard” (SC, 
pp. 39—40). Disrupting the “perfect gridwork” of a late capitalist America 
where commerce has almost entirely displaced government, snow crash 
signifies the eruption of chaos into this informatted world. As if in response 
to the cybernetic models of the brain, Neal Stephenson reasons that there 
must exist in humans a basic programming level, comparable to machine 
code in computers, at which free will and autonomy are no more in play 
than they are for core memory' running a program. Whereas Galatea 2.2 
traces the recursive evolution of consciousness rising up from this basic 
level, Snow Crash depicts the violent stripping away of consciousness 
when humans crash back down to the basic level. Just as inscription and in- 
corporation diverge for Helen as she gains consciousness, so in Snow Crash 
they converge when humans lose consciousness. 

The convergence of inscription with incorporation is foreshadowed by 
the way that hackers contract the virus. Whereas ordinary folk ingest the 
vims as a drug or get it by exchanging bodily fluids, hackers cancatchit sim- 
ply by looking at the bitmap of its code. As the narrator points out, the retina 
is connected directly to the cortex. In a literal sense, the retina is an outpost 
of the brain. Hence the infection can enter through the eyes to affect the 
brain directly. Hiro learns from Lagos, a private investigator of sorts who is 
on the trail of snow crash, that because he is a hacker, he has “deep struc- 

The Semiotics of Virtuality / 273 

tures to worry about.” “Remember the first time you learned binary code?” 
Lagos asks. “You were forming pathways in your brain. Deep structures. 
Your nerves grow new connections as you use them — the axons split and 
push their way between the dividing glial cells — your bioware self-modi- 
fies — the software becomes part of the hardware. So now you’re vulnera- 
ble” (SC, pp. 117-18). The metaphoric crossings in this passage mark the 
conceptual terrain that Snow Crash explores. Experience modifies brain 
structure; neural tissues are information-processing mechanisms; human 
“bioware” that works on computers itself begins to function like a com- 

Extending and elaborating the metaphoric equation of humans and 
computers is Stephenson s description of how snow crash works. Just as a 
computer virus can crash a system by infecting the computer at the lowest 
level of code, so snow crash “hacks the brainstem” by changing the neu- 
rolinguistic codes of the subcortical limbic system. When this happens, the 
brain is no longer able to run its neocortical programs. Snow crash in effect 
hijacks the higher levels of cortical functioning and renders them inopera- 
ble. The infected person regresses to a semiconscious state and becomes an 
automaton who follows directions unquestioningly, as if the person were a 
computer with no choice but to run the programs fed into it. The sign and 
trigger of this conversion is a monosyllabic language that sounds like “fala- 
bala,” which mimics the sounds made by the posthuman automata. 

The evil genius behind snow crash is L. Bob Rife, a Texas megalomaniac 
who combines the worst of such initialized luminaries as L. Ron Hubbard, 
L. B . J. , and H . Ross Perot. Specializing in information networks. Rife is the 
ultimate monopolist capitalist, bemoaning how difficult it is to get that last 
tenth of a percent of complete control. The search for snow crash began 
when he realized that although he would never allow his employees to walk 
out the doorwith inventor)', he had noway to control the inventor)' they car- 
ried in their heads — the information to which his hackers w'ere privy. With 
the help of a virtual librarian from the CIC (the Central Intelligence Cor- 
poration, formed when the CIA merged with the Library of Congress), the 
playfully named Hiro Protagonist manages to reconstruct Rife’s plot. The 
trail leads to ancient Sumerian, a language with a structure radically differ- 
ent from that of any modern language. This different structure, Hiro con- 
jectures, made the language especially vulnerable to viral infection. It 
propagated a virus that reduced neurolinguistic functioning to the lowest 
level of subcortical processing, the machine language of the brain. Hiro 
speculates that the Sumerians were not conscious in the modern sense of 
the term. Except for an elite class of priests, the entire Sumer society 

274 / Chapter Ten 

worked as automata, functioning like computers that ran the programs they 
were given. These programs, or me, were dispensed at the temples and 
instructed the people on how to do everything, from baking bread to 
having sex. 

According to the interpretation that Hiro gives to a Sumerian myth, this 
system changed when the god Enki pronounced his nam-shub, a perfor- 
mative speech that enacts what it describes. The nam-shub acted as a be- 
nign virus that counteracted the first virus and thus freed the neoeortieal 
structures, allowing higher neurolinguistic pathways to develop. After 
Enkis nam-shub, human language became more diverse and complex, 
spinning off more and more variants in the “Babel effect. ” The snow crash 
virus reverses this development, converting modem humans into the 
equivalent of ancient Sumerians — devoid of agency, individuality, and au- 
tonomy. Thus Snow Crash writes binary code and viral engineering back 
into history, making the reduction of conscious humans into automata 
the recapitulation of an ancient struggle. Computation has always been 
with us, the narrative implies, because computation is the basis for human 
neural functioning. 

Central to this scenario is performative language. Stephenson takes his 
inspiration not from J. L. Austin or Judith Butler but from computational 
theory . 11 In natural languages, performative utterances operate in a sym- 
bolic realm, where they can make things happen because they refer to ac- 
tions that are themselves symbolic constructions, actions such as getting 
married, opening meetings, or as Butler has argued, acquiring gender. 
Computational theory treats computer languages as if they were, in Austin s 
terms, performative utterances. Although material changes do take place 
when computers process code (magnetic polarities are changed on a disk), 
it is the act of attaching significance to these physical changes that consti- 
tutes computation as such. Thus the Universal Turing Machine, which es- 
tablishes a theoretical basis for computation, is concerned not with how 
physical changes are accomplished but with what they signify once they are 
accomplished . 12 

Computational theory can afford to treat the physical processing of code 
as if it were trivial because at the lowest level of code, machine language, in- 
scription merges with incorporation. When a computer reads and writes 
machine language, it operates directly on binary' code, the ones and zeros 
that correspond to positive and negative electronic polarities. At this level, 
inscribing is performing, for changing a one to a zero corresponds directly 
to changing the electronic polarity' of that bit. Conversely, the higher level a 
computer language is, the more representational it is. Humans can easily 

The Semiotics of Virtuality / 275 

understand three-dimensional computer simulations because these simu- 
lations use representational codes similar to those used in human process- 
ing of visual information, including perspective and stereoscopy. At this 
high level of code, many levels of language intervene between flipping a bit 
and, say, rotating a figure 180 degrees. High-level languages are easy for 
humans to understand but are removed from the physical enactions that 
perform them. Machine language is coextensive with enaction, but it is ex- 
tremely difficult for humans to read machine language, and it is almost im- 
possible for them to process machine language intuitively (as one who has 
programmed electrode-computer interfaces in machine language, I can 
testify to how mind-numbingly difficult it is to work in this code). Whereas 
in performative utterances saying is doing because the action performed is 
symbolic in nature and does not require physical action in the world, at the 
basic level of computation doing is saying because physical actions also 
have a symbolic dimension that corresponds directly with computation. 

Through these parallels, Snow Crash creates an infoworid, a territory' 
where deep homologies emerge between humans and computers because 
both are based on a fundamental coding level at which everything reduces 
to information production, storage, and transmission. The infoworid is 
made manifest through the artifactual physics of virtual reality (VR ) , which 
renders the performative nature of computer languages visually appar- 
ent. 13 “A nam-shub is a speech with magical force,” the librarian com- 
ments. The narrator continues the thought. “Nowadays, people don't 
believe in these kinds of things. Except in the Metaverse, that is, where 
magic is possible. The Metaverse is a fictional structure made out of code. 
And code is just a form of speech — the form that computers understand. 
The Metaverse in its entirety could be considered a single vast nam- 
shub, enactingitselfon L. Bob Rife s fiber-optic network” (SC, p. 197). The 
human-computer homology encourages us to see the VR simulation of the 
Metaverse as more “realistic” than everyday reality because the former op- 
erates according to the same rules that govern human neural functioning at 
the most basic coding level. 

In a brilliant article on postmodern metaphysics, David Porush explains 
why the performative nature of VR worlds can be seen as a model for hu- 
man cognition. He argues that cognition is basically metaphoric, for the 
brain does not so much perceive the world as create it through nonrepre- 
sentational processes (a proposition familiar to us from Maturana s frog ar- 
ticle). VR can thus be understood as an exteriorization of our neural 
processes. Porush calls the realization that cognition and metaphor are in- 
distinguishable “transcendence,” for at that moment the irreducibly com- 

2/6 / Chapter Ten 

plex froth of noise bathing our synapses becomes linked, through 
metaphor, with the complexity of the world’s noise. 14 The idea is similar to 
Mary Catherine Bateson s insight in Our Own Metaphor, where she argues 
that although we can never perceive the world directly, we know it through 
the metaphor that we ourselves are for the world’s complexity. 15 These 
deep homologies between computer simulation and cognition reinforce 
the idea that for both brain and computer, inscription and incorporation 
merge at some basic level. 

So is it necessarily bad that humans and computers merge in this way? 
For Stephenson, apparently, the answer is “yes.” For all his playfulness and 
satiric jabs at white mainstream America, Stephenson clearly sees the ar- 
rival of the posthuman as a disaster. Ponish astutely notices that although 
the snow crash virus is engineered to serve evil ends, it is possible to imag- 
ine someone “hacking the brainstem” for liberator)' purposes. The charac- 
ter realizing this possibility is Juanita, a primo hacker who becomes a “ba’al 
shem,” a mystic who knows the secret power of words and uses them to 
bring about material changes in the world. But Juanita drops out of the plot. 
In pondering why the narrative does not allow Juanita to practice her 
magic, Porush speculates that Stephenson, like contemporary society gen- 
erally, wants to avoid transcendence at all costs (to understand this conclu- 
sion, recall Porush’s peculiar notion of transcendence, which he defines 
as the realization that the synaptic noise within mirrors the worlds noise 

In my view, more than transcendence is at stake. Also at issue is the role 
of reason. In a scene clearly meant to have symbolic significance, Stephen- 
son has a nuclear-powered machine gun, which has been protecting Hiro 
and his crew from Rife’s minions, go blank when it is infected with the snow 
crash virus. “Reason is still up top, its monitor screen radiating blue static 
toward heaven. Hiro finds the hard power switch and turns it off. Comput- 
ers this powerful are supposed to shut themselves down, after you’ve asked 
them to. Turning one off with the hard switch is like lulling someone to 
sleep by severing their spinal column. But when the system has snow- 
crashed, it loses even the ability to turn itself off, and primitive methods are 
required” (SC,p. 361). Reason may still be on top, but once the nervous sys- 
tem has crashed at a basic level, rationality becomes as useless as the dis- 
abled gun. Porush tries to finesse the issue by arguing that rationality is 
opposed to “realism” because realism tries to reduce the world’s noisy com- 
plexity into graspable concepts. But to recognize that the world cannot be 
caught in the boxes we fashion still does not answer the question of who (or 
what) is in control if reason is not. If human consciousness can be co-opted 

The Semiotics of Virtuality / 277 

by hijacking its basic programming level, we are plunged into Wiener’s 
nightmare of a cybernetics used for tyrannical ends. The posthuman who 
lacks autonomy because its programming modules conflict with one an- 
other is very different from the posthuman automaton who has had its con- 
sciousness hijacked by someone else. 

Stephenson often mocks his own assumptions, for example when he 
names his heroine, an attractive young white woman, “Y.T.,” which is a ho- 
mophone for “Whitey” but which stands, she informs us, for ‘‘Yours Truly.” 
Despite these tongue-in-cheek moves, the plot makes clear that it is better 
to have a white middle-American consciousness than to have no conscious- 
ness at all. An equal-opportunity offender, Stephenson has something in 
his text to insult nearly every' ethnic group imaginable. The satire is so broad 
that detecting racist comments is akin to shooting fish in a barrel. Yet if we 
look closely at the main characters, it is apparent that they are carefully con- 
structed to affirm the value of diversity. Surely it is no accident that the vil- 
lains are finally defeated by a coalition between an Alrican-American/ 
Korean, a Vietnamese, a Chinese, an Italian- American, and a young white 
woman. Equally revealing are the targets for whom Stephenson reserves 
his most cutting satire. Of diverse ethnicities, they can be recognized as fel- 
low travelers because they all carry the signifier of mindless bureaucracy, 
the three-ring binder stuffed with procedures and directives couched in 
such impossibly verbose and convoluted language that they kill brain cells 
on contact — the me of contemporary society 7 . 

So when we learn the full scope of Rife’s plot, the important point from 
Stephenson s perspective, I suspect, is not so much its race politics as its im- 
plications for the individuality, autonomy, and creative initiative that he 
clearly values in computer hackers. Rife plots to smash what remains of 
white hegemony in California (and possibly in the United States) by bring- 
ing to the California shore the Raft, a gargantuan collection of boats lashed 
together, from oil tankers to Vietnamese fishing boats. The Raft is home to 
the Refus, the significantly named Third World refugees who have been ra- 
pacious or tough enough to survive pirates, famine, and internecine war- 
fare — no doubt a satire intended to ridicule the immigration paranoia 
currently raging in California. We are made to understand that when the 
Refus come ashore, the scenario wall be akin to Attila’s ravaging hordes de- 
scending on Rome, overrunning the gated communities into which the 
white citizens have retreated (a.k.a. “burbclaves,” not to be confused with 
civilization). Many of the people on the Raft have had antennae implanted 
in their brainstems so that they can receive Rife’s instructions directly into 
their brains. Functioning as automata, they body forth a version of the 

2/8 / Chapter Ten 

posthuman that stands in horrific contrast to the free will, creativity, and in- 
dividuality that for Stephenson remains the essence of the human. 

Paralleling this physical invasion is the “infoealypse,” when the hackers 
in the Metaverse will be infected by gazing at a spectacle in which, unbe- 
known to them, the bitmap of the virus has been inscribed. In this virtual 
realm, saving is doing, so it is possible for Hiro to avert the disaster simply 
by writing new code. On terra firma, action still requires incorporation, a 
point the plot insists on when it pits Uncle Enzo, the Mafia boss who speaks 
for family values in a not-altogether-ironic sense, in a physical fight against 
Raven, an Aleut Indian who is a formidable opponent in part because he is 
a mutant, the product of an atomic bomb test carried out on the Aleutian Is- 
lands. If Raven is the repressed of the cultural imaginary come back to 
“nuke America,” Uncle Enzo is the middle-class dream of the successful 
capitalist who is also a dedicated family man. Uncle Enzo survives (appar- 
ently) because he does not entirely place his trust in high technology. At the 
crucial moment, he reverts back to the jungle warfare techniques he 
learned in Vietnam. Another player in this struggle is the Rat Thing, a cy- 
borg canine that leaps over the fences of its engineered neural machinery 
and electronic conditioning to come to the aid of the “nice girl” Y.T., who 
loved the Rat Thing. In the process, it destroys the plane on which Rife is 
trying to escape. If there is a message in all this, it seems to be that no mat- 
ter how technologically advanced the society becomes, technology cannot 
replace the personal bonds that tie humans to humans, humans to animals, 
and humans to their own senses. 

Although Snow Crash obviously comes down on the side of preserving 
autonomy, individuality, and consciousness, it also reinforces the equation 
of humans with computers through the tangled loops it creates between 
material signifiers and signifying materialities. Emphasizing the force of 
performative language in an infoworld, it performs the construction of hu- 
mans as computers. Instead of evading this implication. Snow Crash writes 
the drama back into history, suggesting that the posthuman, like the anten- 
nae that serve as its visible and outward sign, lies coiled around the brain- 
stem and cannot be removed without killingthe patient. Whereas Terminal 
Games wanted to excise the posthuman from its text and from history. 
Snow Crash initiates hygienic measures against the performative force of 
its own inscriptions. Intimating that the snowcrash virus can be defeated by 
a healthy dose of rationality and skepticism. Snow Crash would inoculate 
us against the human-computer equation by injecting us with a viral meine, 
that is, an idea that replicates through its human hosts. 16 The essence of this 
meme, and the best way to counteract the negative effects of the posthu- 

The Semiotics of Virtuality / 279 

man, is to acknowledge that we have always been posthuman. 17 We cannot 
change our computational natures; at bottom, Stephenson suggests, we re- 
ally are nothing more than information-processing mechanisms that run 
what programs are fed into us. We should value the late evolutionary add- 
ons of consciousness and reason not because they are foundational but be- 
cause they allow the human to emerge out of the posthumans we have 
always already been. 

Inscribing and Incorporating; The Future (of the) Posthuman 

These four texts testify that many attributes of the liberal humanist subject, 
especially the attribute of agency, continue to be valued in the face of the 
posthuman. The posthuman tends to be embraced if it is seen as preserving 
agency (Blood Music) and resisted if not ( Terminal Games). The pattern of 
seriation that we saw in the development of cybernetics continues to hold 
here. Some elements of the liberal humanist subject are rewritten into the 
posthuman, whereas others, particularly the identification of self with the 
conscious mind, are substantially changed. Instead of being represented as 
a (decontextualized) mind thinking, the subjects of these texts achieve 
consciousness through recursive feedback loops cycling between different 
levels of coding. The association of posthuman subjectivity with multiple 
coding levels suggests the need for different models of signification, ones 
that will recognize this distinctive feature ol neurolinguistic and computer 
language structure. The idea of flickering signifiers, introduced in chapter 
2, shows what one such model might be. Like subjectivity itself, human lan- 
guage is being redescribed in terms that underscore its similarities to and 
differences from computer coding. 

In addition to an emphasis on layered coding structures, the construc- 
tion of the posthuman is also deeply involved with boundary questions, 
particularly when the redrawing of boundaries changes the locus of self- 
hood. Shift the seat of identity from brain to cell, or from neocortex to 
brainstem, and the nature of the subject radically changes. In a manner dis- 
tinctive!}’ different from that of Freud or Jung, these texts reveal the 
fragility of consciousness. Conscious mind can be hijacked, cut off by muti- 
nous cells, absorbed into an artificial consciousness, or back-propagated 
through flawed memory. This vulnerability is directly related to a changed 
view of signification. The more consciousness is seen to be the product of 
multiple coding levels, the greater is the number of sites where interven- 
tions can produce catastrophic effects. Whether consciousness is seen as a 
precious evolutionary achievement that we should fight to preserve (Snow 

2 8 o / Chapter Ten 

Crash) or as an isolation room whose li mits we are ready to outgrow ( Blood 
Music), we can no longer simply assume that consciousness guarantees the 
existence of the self. In this sense, the posthuman subject is also a postcon- 
scious subject. 

As we have seen, one implication of the human-computer equation is 
the idea of a basic coding level where inscription and incorporation join . As 
one moves up from this basic level, inscription tends to diverge from incor- 
poration , becoming representational rather than performative. One way to 
think about the transformation of the human into the posthuman, then, is 
as a series of exchanges between evolving/devolving inscriptions and in- 
corporations. Returning to the semiotic square, we can map these possibil- 
ities (see figure 5). 

Blood Music, imagining that the cells contract to pure information while 
leaving behind embodied humans as belated remainders, uses this ending 
to posit a fundamental question. Is the change from human to posthuman 
an evolutionary advance or a catastrophe of unprecedented scope? Does 
this change represent th e next logi cal developmen t, in wh ieh Homo sap tens 
joins with the intelligent machine to create Homo silicon, or does it signal 
the long twilight and decline of the human race? In Blood Music, these 

FIGURE 5 Incorporation/inscription mapped onto the semiotic square 

The S e m i o t i c s of Virtuality / 281 

questions take the form of competing morphologies. Ideology is enacted 
through boundary crossings between the human as an independent organ- 
ism and the clumped collectivity of cell colonies. 

When the emphasis falls on inscription rather than incorporation, the 
important boundaries are between competing practices of inscription 
rather than between different morphologies. Does the human create the 
alter by typing at the computer keyboard, or does the alter control the hu- 
man's typing so that the inscription reflects the alters will rather than the 
human’s? Like Blood Music , Terminal Games revolves around a central 
ideological struggle. From Auggies point of view, he is a more advanced 
form of inscription than the “cells” he controls; from the human point of 
view, he represents a devolution whereby a dangerously independent in- 
scription can assert its control over the embodied humans that Auggie un- 
derstands as inferior forms of writing. 

The tension between inscription and incorporation is also important for 
the texts on the vertical axis. In Galatea 2.2, humans’ physical capacities 
that evolved through their interactions with the environment are juxta- 
posed with the evolving inscriptions that constitute Helen as an intelligent 
being. Human language grows out of embodied experience, whereas He- 
len must extrapolate back from human language to embodied experience. 
This fundamental difference makes evolving incorporation, for all its frail- 
ties, finally more robust than evolving inscription. In Snoiv Crash, humans 
devolve when the snow crash virus operates at the level where incorpora- 
tion and inscription join. The way to reverse this devolution is to reactivate 
the higher levels of coding, thus moving from the space of performance 
into the space of representation. This movement is meant, I have sug- 
gested, to act as a viral meme that will inoculate the reader against the per- 
formative force of the text’s own central metaphors equating humans and 

Significantly, all of these texts are obsessed, in various ways, with the 
dynamics of evolution and devolution. U nderlying their obsessions is a mo- 
mentous question: when the human meets the posthuman, will the en- 
counter be for better or for worse? Will the posthuman preserve what we 
continue to value in the liberal subject, or will the transformation into the 
posthuman annihilate the subject? Will free will and individual agency still 
be possible in a posthunran future? Will we be able to recognize ourselves 
after the change? Will there still be a self to recognize and be recognized? 

As the texts struggle with these questions, the surprise, if there is one, is 
how committed the texts remain to some version of the human subject. 18 If 
the “post” in posthuman points to changes that are in part already here, the 

2 8 2 / Chapter Ten 

“human” points to the seriated nature of these changes. But finally the an- 
swers to questions about the posthuman wall not be found in books, or at 
least not only in books. Rather, the answers will be the mutual creation of a 
planet full of humans struggling to bring into existence a future in which we 
can continue to survive, continue to find meaning lor ourselves and our 
children, and continue to ponder our kinship with and differences from the 
intelligent machines with which our destinies are increasingly entwined. 

Chapter Eleven 


What, finally, are we to make of the posthuman ? 1 At the beginning of this 
book, I suggested that the prospect of becoming posthuman both evokes 
terror and excites pleasure. At the end of the book, perhaps I can summa- 
rize the implications of the posthuman by interrogating the sources of this 
terror and pleasure. The terror is relatively easy to understand. “Post,” with 
its dual connotation of superseding the human and coming after it, hints 
that the days of “the human” may be numbered. Some researchers (notably 
Hans Moravee but also my UCLA colleague Michael Dyer and many 
others) believe that this is true not only in a general intellectual sense that 
displaces one definition of “human” with another but also in a more dis- 
turbingly literal sense that envisions humans displaced as the dominant 
form of life on the planet by intelligent machines. Humans can either go 
gently into that good night, joining the dinosaurs as a species that once 
ruled the earth but is now obsolete, or hang on for a while longer by be- 
coming machines themselves. In either case, Moravee and like-minded 
thinkers believe, the age of the human is drawing to a close. The view 
echoes the deeply pessimistic sentiments of Warren McCulloch in his old 
age. As noted earlier, he remarked: “Man to my mind is about the nastiest, 
most destructive of all the animals. I don’t see anv reason, if he can evolve 
machines that can have more fun than he himself can, why they shouldn’t 
take over, enslave us, quite happily. They might have a lot more fun. Invent 
better games than we ever did .” 2 Is it any wonder that faced with such dis- 
mal scenarios, most people have understandably negative reactions? If this 
is what the posthuman means, why shouldn’t it be resisted? 

Fortunately, these views do not exhaust the meanings of the posthuman. 
As I have repeatedly argued, human being is first of all embodied being, 
and the complexities of this embodiment mean that human awareness 


284 / Chapter Eleven 

unfolds in ways very different from those of intelligence embodied in cy- 
bernetic machines. Although Moravec’s dream of downloading human 
consciousness into a computer would likely come in for some hard knocks 
in literature departments (which tend to be skeptical of any kind of tran- 
scendence but especially of transcendence through technology), literary 
studies share with Moravec a major blind spot when it comes to the signifi- 
cance of embodiment . 3 This blind spot is most evident, perhaps, when lit- 
erary' and cultural critics confront the fields of evolutionary biology. From 
an evolutionary biologist s point of view, modern humans, for all their tech- 
nological prowess, represent an eye blink in the history' of life, a species far 
too recent to have significant evolutionary impact on human biological 
behaviors and structures. In my view, arguments like those that Jared 
Diamond advances in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Soci- 
eties and Why Sex Is Fun: The Evolution of Human Sexuality should be 
taken seriously . 4 The body is the net result of thousands of years of sedi- 
mented evolutionary history, and it is naive to think that this history does 
not affect human behaviors at every level of thought and action. 

Of course, the reflexivity that looms large in cybernetics also inhabits 
evolutionary biology. The models proposed by evolutionary biologists 
have encoded within them cultural attitudes and assumptions formed by 
the same history they propose to analyze; as with cybernetics, observer 
and system are reflexively bound up with one another. To take only one 
example, the computer module model advanced by Jerome H. Barkow, 
Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby in The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psy- 
chology and the Generation of Culture to explain human evolutionary psy- 
chology testifies at least as much to the importance of information 
technologies in shaping contemporary worldviews as it does to human 
brain function . 5 Nevertheless, these reflexive complexities do not negate 
the importance of the sedimented history' incarnated within the body. In- 
terpreted through metaphors resonant with cultural meanings, the body 
itself is a congealed metaphor, a physical structure whose constraints and 
possibilities have been formed by an evolutionary history that intelligent 
machines do not share. Humans may enter into symbiotic relationships 
with intelligent machines (already the case, for example, in computer-as- 
sisted surgery'); they may be displaced by intelligent machines (already in 
effect, for example, at Japanese and American assembly plants that use ro- 
botic arms for labor); but there is a limit to how seamlessly humans can be 
articulated with intelligent machines, which remain distinctively different 
from humans in their embodiments. The terror, then, though it does not 
disappear in this view, tends away from the apocalyptic and toward a more 

Conclusion / 28s 

moderate view of seriated social, technological, political, and cultural 

What about the pleasures? For some people, including me, the posthu- 
man evokes the exhilarating prospect of getting out of some of the old boxes 
and opening up new ways of thinking about what being human means. In 
positing a shift from presence/absence to pattern/ randomness, I have 
sought to show how these categories can be transformed/ro??i the inside to 
arrive at new kinds of cultural configurations, which may soon render such 
dualities obsolete if they have not already. This process of transformation is 
fueled by tensions between the assumptions encoded in pattern/ random- 
ness as opposed to presence/absence. In Jacques Derrida’s performance of 
presence/absence, presence is allied with Logos, God, teleology — in 
general, with an originary plenitude that can act to ground signification 
and give order and meaning to the trajectory of history . 6 The work of Eric 
Havelock, among others, demonstrates how in Plato’s Republic this view of 
originary presence authorized a stable, coherent self that could witness and 
testify to a stable, coherent reality. ' Through these and other means, the 
metaphysics of presence front-loaded meaning into the system. Meaning 
was guaranteed because a stable origin existed. It is now a familiar story’ 
how deconstruction exposed the inability of systems to posit their own ori- 
gins, thus ungrounding signification and rendering meaning indetermi- 
nate. As the presence/absence hierarchy was destabilized and as absence 
was privileged over presence, lack displaced plenitude, and desire usurped 
certitude. Important as these moves have been in late-twentieth -century 
thought, they still took place within the compass of the presence/absence 
dialectic. One feels lack only if presence is posited or assumed; one is driven 
by desire only if the object of desire is conceptualized as something to be 
possessed. Just as the metaphysics of presence required an originary pleni- 
tude to articulate a stable self, deconstruction required a metaphysics of 
presence to articulate the destabilization of that self. 

By contrast, pattern/randomness is underlaid by a very different set of 
assumptions. In this dialectic, meaning is not front-loaded into the system, 
and the origin does not act to ground signification. As we have seen for mul- 
tiagent simulations, complexity evolves from highly recursive processes 
being applied to simple rules . Rather than proceeding along a trajectory to- 
ward a known end, such systems evolve toward an open future marked by 
contingency and unpredictability. Meaning is not guaranteed by a coherent 
origin; rather, it is made possible (but not inevitable) by the blind force of 
evolution finding workable solutions within given parameters. Although 
pattern has traditionally been the privileged term (for example, among the 

286 / Chapter Eleven 

electrical engineers developing information theory), randomness has in- 
creasingly been seen to play a fruitful role in the evolution of complex sys- 
tems. For Chris Langton and Stuart Kauffman, chaos accelerates the 
evolution of biological and artificial life ; 8 for F rancisco Varela, randomness 
is the froth of noise from which coherent microstates evolve and to which 
living systems owe their capacity' for fast, flexible response ; 9 for Henri 
Atlan, noise is the body's murmuring from which emerges complex com- 
munication between different levels in a biological system . 10 Although 
these models differ in their specifics, they agree in seeing randomness not 
simply as the lack of pattern but as the creative ground from which pattern 
can emerge. 

Indeed, it is not too much to say that in these and similar models, ran- 
domness rather than pattern is invested with plenitude . If pattern is the re- 
alization of a certain set of possibilities, randomness is the much, much 
larger set of everything else, from phenomena that cannot be rendered co- 
herent by a given system’s organization to those the system cannot perceive 
at all. In Gregory Bateson s cybernetic epistemology, randomness is what 
exists outside the confines of the box in which a system is located; it is the 
larger and unknowable complexity for which the perceptual processes of 
an organism are a metaphor . 1 1 Significance is achieved by evolutionary 
processes that ensure the surviving systems are the ones whose organi- 
zations instantiate metaphors for this complexity, unthinkable in itself. 
When Varela and his coauthors argue in Embodied Mind that there is no 
stable, coherent self but only autonomous agents running programs, they 
envision pattern as a limitation that drops away as human awareness ex- 
pands beyond consciousness and encounters the emptiness that, in an- 
other guise, could equally well be called the chaos from which all forms 
emerge . 12 

What do these developments mean for the posthuman? When the self is 
envisioned as grounded in presence, identified with ori ginary guarantees 
and teleological trajectories, associated with solid foundations and logical 
coherence, the posthuman is likely to be seen as antihuman because it en- 
visions the conscious mind as a small subsystem running its program of self- 
construction and self-assurance while remaining ignorant of the actual 
dynamics of complex systems. But theposthuman does not really mean the 
end of humanity. It signals instead the end of a certain conception of the hu- 
man, a conception that may have applied, at best, to that fraction of hu- 
manity who had the wealth, power, and leisure to conceptualize themselves 
as autonomous beings exercising their will through individual agency and 
choice . 13 What is lethal is not the posthuman as such but the grafting of the 

Conclusion / 287 

posthuman onto a liberal humanist view of the self. When Moravec imag- 
ines “you” choosing to download yourself into a computer, thereby obtain- 
ing through technological mastery the ultimate privilege of immortality, he 
is not abandoning the autonomous liberal subject but is expanding its per- 
ogatives into the realm of the posthuman. Yet the posthuman need not be 
recuperated back into liberal humanism, nor need it be construed as anti- 
human. Located within the dialectic of pattern/randomness and grounded 
in embodied actuality' rather than disembodied information, the posthu- 
man offers resources for rethinking the articulation of humans with intelli- 
gent machines. 

To explore these resources, let us return to Bateson s idea that those or- 
ganisms that survive will tend to be the ones whose internal structures are 
good metaphors for the complexities without. What kind of environments 
wall be created by the expanding power and sophistication of intelligent 
machines? As Richard Lanham has pointed out, in the information-rich en- 
vironments created by ubiquitous computing, the limiting factor is not the 
speed of computers, or the rates of transmission through fiber-optic cables, 
or the amount of data that can be generated and stored. Rather, the scarce 
commodity is human attention . 14 It makes sense, then, that technological 
innovation will focus on compensating for this bottleneck. An obvious solu- 
tion is to design intelligent machines to attend to the choices and tasks that 
do not have to be done by humans. For example, there are already intelli- 
gent-agent programs to sort email, discarding unwanted messages and pri- 
oritizing the rest. The programs work along lines similar to neural nets. 
They tabulate the choices the human operators make, and they feed back 
this information in recursive loops to readjust the weights given to various 
kinds of email addresses. After an initial learning period, the sorting pro- 
grams take over more and more of the email management, freeing humans 
to give their attention to other matters. 

If we extrapolate from these relatively simple programs to an environ- 
ment that, as Charles Ostman likes to put it, supplies synthetic sentience on 
demand, human consciousness would ride on top of a highly articulated 
and complex computational ecology in which many decisions, invisible to 
human attention, would be made by intelligent machines . 15 Over two 
decades ago, Joseph Weizenbaum foresaw just such an ecology and pas- 
sionately argued that judgment is a uniquely human function and must not 
be turned over to computers . 16 With the rapid development of neural nets 
and expert programs, it is no longer so clear that sophisticated judgments 
cannot be made by machines and, in some instances, made more accurately 
than by humans. But the issue, in Weizenbaums view, involves more 

J 77 

288 / Chapter Eleven 

than whether or not the programs work. Rather, the issue is an ethical im- 
perative that humans keep control; to do otherwise is to abdicate their re- 
sponsibilities as autonomous independent beings. What Weizenbaums 
argument makes clear is the connection between the assumptions under- 
girding the liberal humanist subject and the ethical position that humans, 
not machines, must be in control. Such an argument assumes a vision of the 
human in which conscious agency is the essence of human identity 7 . Sacri- 
fice this, and we humans are hopelessly compromised, contaminated with 
mechanic alienness in the very heart of our humanity . 1 7 Hence there is 
an urgency, even panic, in Weizenbaums insistence that judgment is a 
uniquely human function. At stake for him is nothing less than what it 
means to be human. 

In the posthuman Hew, by contrast, conscious agency has never been “in 
control.” In fact, the very 7 illusion of control bespeaks a fundamental igno- 
rance about the nature of the emergent processes through which con- 
sciousness, the organism, and the environment are constituted. Mastery 
through the exercise of autonomous will is merely the story consciousness 
tells itself to explain results that actually come about through chaotic dy- 
namics and emergent structures. If, as Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, 
Evelyn Fox Keller, Carolyn Merchant, and other feminist critics of science 
have argued, there is a relation among the desire for mastery, an objectivist 
account of science, and the imperialist project of subduing nature, then the 
posthuman offers resources for the construction of another kind of ac- 
count . 18 In this account, emergence replaces teleology; reflexive episte- 
mology 7 replaces objectivism; distributed cognition replaces autonomous 
wall; embodiment replaces a body seen as a support system for the mind; 
and a dynamic partnership between humans and intelligent machines re- 
places the liberal humanist subject s manifest destiny to dominate and con- 
trol nature. Of course, this is not necessarily what the posthuman will 
mean — only what it can mean if certain strands among its complex seri- 
ations are highlighted and combined to create a vision of the human that 
uses the posthuman as leverage to avoid reinscribing, and thus repeating, 
some of the mistakes of the past. 

Just as the posthuman need not be antihuman, so it also need not be 
apocalyptic. Edwin Hutchins addresses the idea of distributed cognition 
through his nuanced study of the navigational systems of oceangoing 
ships . 19 His meticulous research shows that the cognitive system responsi- 
ble for locating the ship in space and navigating it successfully resides not in 
humans alone but in the complex interactions within an environment that 
includes both human and nonhuman actors. His study allows him to give an 

Conclusion / 289 

excellent response to John Searle’s famous “Chinese room.” By imagining 
a situation in which communication in Chinese can take place without the 
actors knowing what their actions mean, Searle challenged the idea that 
machines can think. 20 Suppose, Searle said, that he is stuck inside a room, 
he who knows not a word of Chinese. Texts written in Chinese are slid 
through a slot in the door. He has in the room with him baskets of Chinese 
characters and a rulebook correlating the symbols written on the texts with 
other symbols in the basket. Using the rulebook, he assembles strings of 
characters and pushes them out the door. Although his Chinese interlocu- 
tors take these strings to be clever responses to their inquiries, Searle has 
not the least idea of the meaning of the texts he has produced. Therefore, it 
would be a mistake to say that machines can think, he argues, for like him, 
they produce comprehensible results without comprehending anything 
themselves. In Hutchins’s neat interpretation, Searle’s argument is valu- 
able precisely because it makes clear that it is not Searle but the entire room 
that knows Chinese. 21 In this distributed cognitive system, the Chinese 
room knows more than do any of its components, including Searle. The sit- 
uation of modern humans is akin to that of Searle in the Chinese room, for 
every day we participate in systems whose total cognitive capacity exceeds 
our individual knowledge, including such devices as cars with electronic 
ignition systems, microwaves with computer chips that precisely adjust 
power levels, fax machines that warble to other fax machines, and electro- 
nic watches that communicate with a timing radio wave to set themselves 
and correct their date. Modem humans are capable of more sophisticated 
cognition than cavemen not because moderns are smarter, Hutchins con- 
cludes, but because they have constructed smarter environments in which 
to work. 

Hutchins would no doubt disagree with Weizenbaum’s view that 
judgment should be reserved for humans alone. Like cognition, decision- 
making is distributed between human and nonhuman agents, from the 
steam-powered steering system that suddenly failed on a navy' vessel 
Hutchins was studying to the charts and pocket calculators that the naviga- 
tors were then forced to use to calculate their position. He convincingly 
shows that these adaptations to changed circumstances were evolutionary 
and embodied rather than abstract and consciously designed (pp. 347-51 ). 
The solution to the problem caused by this sudden failure of the steering 
mechanism was “clearly discovered by the organization [of the system as a 
whole] before it was discovered by any of the participants” (p. 361). Seen in 
this perspective, the prospect of humans working in partnership with intel- 
ligent machines is not so much a usurpation of human right and responsi- 

2go / Chapter Eleven 

bility as it is a further development in the construction of distributed cogni- 
tion environments, a construction that has been ongoing for thousands of 
years. Also changed in this perspective is the relation of human subjectivity 
to its environment. No longer is human wall seen as the source from which 
emanates the mastery necessary to dominate and control the environment. 
Rather, the distributed cognition of the emergent human subject corre- 
lates with — in Bateson’s phrase, becomes a metaphor for — the distributed 
cognitive system as a whole , in which “thinking” is done by both human and 
nonhuman actors. “Thinking consists of bringing these structures into co- 
ordination so they can shape and be shaped by one another,” Hutchins 
wrote (p. 316). To conceptualize the human in these terms is not to imperil 
human survival but is precisely to enhance it, for the more we understand 
the flexible, adaptive structures that coordinate our environments and the 
metaphors that we ourselves are, the better we can fashion images of our- 
selves that accurately reflect the complex interplays that ultimately make 
the entire wnrld one system. 

This view' of the posthuman also offers resources for thinking in more so- 
phisticated ways about virtual technologies. As long as the human subject is 
envisioned as an autonomous self with unambiguous boundaries, the hu- 
man-computer interface can only be parsed as a division between the so- 
lidity of real life on one side and the illusion of virtual reality on the other, 
thus obscuring the far-reaching changes initiated by the development of 
virtual technologies . Only if one thinks of the subject as an autonomous self 
independent of the environment is one likely to experience the panic per- 
formed by Norbert Wiener’s C ybemetics and Bernard Wolfe s Limbo. This 
view of the self authorizes the fear that if the boundaries are breached at all, 
there will be nothing to stop the self’s complete dissolution. By contrast, 
when the human is seen as part of a distributed system, the full expression 
of human capability' can be seen precisely to depend on the splice rather 
than being imperiled by it. Writing in another context, Hutchins arrives at 
an insight profoundly applicable to virtual technologies: “What used to look 
like internalization [of thought and subjectivity] now appears as a gradual 
propagation of organized functional properties across a set of malleable 
media” (p. 312). This vision is a potent antidote to the view that parses vir- 
tuality' as a division between an inert body that is left behind and a dis- 
embodied subjectivity that inhabits a virtual realm, the construction of 
virtuality performed by Case in William Gibsons Neuromancer when he 
delights in the “bodiless exultation of cyberspace” and fears, above all, 
dropping back into the “meat” of the body 7 . 22 By contrast, in the model that 
Hutchins presents and that the posthuman helps to authorize, human 

Conclusion / 291 

functionality expands because the parameters of the cognitive system it in- 
habits expand. In this model, it is not a question of leaving the body behind 
but rather of extending embodied awareness in highly specific, local, and 
material ways that would be impossible without electronic prosthesis. 

As we have seen, cybernetics was bom in a froth of noise when Norbert 
Wiener first thought of it as a way to maximize human potential in a world 
that is in essence chaotic and unpredictable. Like many other pioneers, 
Wiener helped to initiate a journey that would prove to have consequences 
more far-reaching and subversive than even his formidable powers of 
imagination could conceive. As Bateson, Varela, and others would later ar- 
gue, the noise crashes within as well as without. The chaotic, unpredictable 
nature of complex dynamics implies that subjectivity is emergent rather 
than given, distributed rather than located solely in consciousness, emerg- 
ing from and integrated into a chaotic world rather than occupying a posi- 
tion of mastery and control removed from it. Bruno Latoi lr has argued that 
we have never been modern; the seriated history of cybernetics — emerg- 
ing from networks at once materially real, socially regulated, and discur- 
sively constructed — suggests, for similar reasons, that we have always been 
posthuman . 23 The purpose of this book has been to chronicle the journeys 
that have made this realization possible. If the three stories told here — how 
information lost its body, how the cyborg was constructed in the postwar 
years as technological artifact and cultural icon, and how the human be- 
came the posthuman — have at times seemed to present the posthuman as 
a transformation to be feared and abhorred rather than welcomed and em- 
braced, that reaction has everything to do with how the posthuman is con- 
structed and understood. The best possible time to contest for what the 
posthuman means is now, before the trains of thought it embodies have 
been laid down so firmly that it would take dynamite to change them 24 Al- 
though some current versions of the posthuman point toward the anti- 
human and the apocalyptic, we can craft others that will be conducive to the 
long-range survival of humans and of the other life-forms, biological and 
artificial, with whom we share the planet and ourselves. 


Chapter One 

1. Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence 
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 109-10. 

2. Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society , 
2d ed. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954), pp. 10.3-4. 

3. Beth Loffreda, “Pulp Science: Race, Gender, and Prediction in Contemporary 
American Science” (Ph.D. diss., Rutgers University, 1996). 

4. Richard Doyle discusses the “impossible inversion” that makes information pri- 
mary and materiality secondary in molecular biology in On Beyond Living: Rhetorical 
Transformations in the Life Sciences (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997). Sec 
also Evelyn Fox Keller’s analysis of the disembodiment of information in molecular 
biology in her Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death: Essays on Language, Gender, and Sci- 
ence (New York: Routledge, 1992), especially chapters 5, 8, and the epilogue. Lily E. 
Kay critically analyzes the emergence of the idea of a genetic “code” in “Cybernetics, In- 
formation, Life: The Emergence of Scriptural Representations of Heredity,” Configu- 
rations 5 (winter 1997); 23-92. For a discussion of how this disembodied view of 
information began to circulate through the culture, see Dorothy Nelldn and M. Susan 
Lindee, The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon (New York: W. H. Freeman 
and Company, 1995). 

5. Michel Foucault famously suggested that “man” is a historical construction whose 
era is about to end in The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New 
York: Vintage Books, 1973), a few years earlier than lhab Hassan’s prescient announce- 
ment of posthumanism cited in the epigraph to this chapter. Since then, the more radi- 
cal idea of the posthuman (as distinct from posthumanism) has appeared at a number 
of places. Among the important texts defining the posthuman in cultural studies are 
Allucquere Roseanne Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Me- 
chanical Age (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995); Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston, 
eds.. Posthuman Bodies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995); Scott Bukat- 
man, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham: 
Duke U niversity Press, 1993); and Anne Balsamo, Technologies of the Gendered Body: 
Reading Cyborg Women (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996). A number of scien- 


29< / Notes to Pages 3-/0 

tific works, detailed in chapters 3, 6 , and 9, also figure importantly in delineating this list 
of characteristics, 

6 . C. B, Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to 
Locke (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 3 (emphasis added). 

7. Donna Ilaraway, Simians , Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature 
(New York: Routledge, 1990), especially “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, 
and Socialist- Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” pp. 149-82; Ilomi Bhabha, 
The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994); Cilles Deleuze and Felix 
Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia , translated by Brian 
Massumi (London: Athlone Press, 1987). 

8 . Lauren Berlant, in The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and 
Everyday Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), discusses the white male 
body of the ideal citizen, including its tendency toward disembodiment. 

9. Gillian Brown, “Anorexia, Humanism, and Feminism,” Yale Journal of Criticism 
5, no. 1(1991): 196. 

J 0. William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984), p. 16. 

1 1. Arthur Kroker, Hackingthe Future: Stories for the Flesh-Eating 90s (New York: 
St. Martin’s Press, 1996). 

12. Five of the Macy Conference transactions were published: Heinz von Foerster, 
ed.. Cybernetics: Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social 
Systems, vols. 6-10 (New York: Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, 1949-55). From the sev- 
enth conference on, M argaret Mead and Hans Lukas Teuber are listed as “assistant ed- 
itors.” The best study of the Macy Conferences is Steve J. Heims, The Cybernetics 
Group (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991). In addition to discussing the conferences and 
doing extensive archival work, Heims also conducted interviews with many of the par- 
ticipants who have since died. 

13. See OttoMayr. The Origins of Feedback Control (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1 970), 
for a full history of the concept of the feedback loop. 

14. Walter Cannon is usually credited with working out the implications of home- 
ostasis for biological organisms in The Wisdom of the Body (New York: W. W. Norton, 
1939), Claude Bernard originated the concept in the nineteenth century. 

15. Mayr, The Origins of Feedback Control. 

16. Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel 
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). 

17. Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere 
in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990). 

18. Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers 
through Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987). Malcome Ashmore ex- 
plores this feature of science studies in The Reflexive Thesis: Wrighting Sociology of Sci- 
entific Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989). 

19. Heinz von Foerster, Observing Systems , 2d ed. (Salinas, Calif.: Intersystems 
Publications, 1984). 

20. Humberto R . Maturana and F rancisco J . Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition: The 
Realization of the Living, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 42 (Dor- 
drecht: D. Reidel, 1980). 

21. Niklas Luhmann has modified and extended Maturana’s epistemology in signif- 
icant ways; see, for example, his Essays on Self-Reference (New York: Columbia Uni- 

Notes to Pages 11-18 / 295 

versity Press, 1990) and “The Cognitive Program of Constructivism and a Reality That 
Remains Unknown,” in Self-Organization: Portrait of a Scientific Revolution, edited by 
Wolfgang Krohn, Guenter Kueppes, and Helga Nowotny (Dordrecht: Kluwer Aca- 
demic Publishers, 1990), 64-85. 

22. Edward Fredkin, “Digital Mechanics: An Information Process Based on Re- 
versible Universal Cellular Automata,” Physica D 45 (1990): 245-70. See also the ac- 
count of Fredkin s work in Robert Wright, Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for 
Meaning in an Age of Information (New York: Times Books, 1988). Also central to this 
theory is the work of Stephen Wolfram; see his Theory and Applications oj Cellular Au- 
tomata (Singapore: World Scientific, 1986). 

23. Marvin Minsky, “Why Computer Science Is the Most Important Thing That Has 
Happened to the Humanities in 5,000 Years” (public lecture, Nara, Japan, May 15, 
1996). I am grateful to Nicholas Gessler for providing me with his transcript of the lec- 

24. See Jennifer Daryl Slack and Fred Fejes, eds.. The Ideology of the Information 
Age (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Publishing Company, 1987), for essiyl exploring the impli- 
cations of the contemporary construction of information. The tendency to ignore the 
material realities of communication technologies has been forcefully rebutted in two 
important works: Friedrich A. Kittler’s Discourse Networks, 1800-1900, translated by 
Michael Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), and Hans Ulrich Gum- 
breeht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer, eds.. Materialities of Communication, translated by 
William Whobrey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994). 

25. The relation of molecular biology has been explored in Keller, Secrets; the cen- 
trality of World War 11 to the development of cybernetics is demonstrated by Peter 
Galison in “The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision,” 
Critical Inquiry 21 ( .1994): 228-66. Relevant here also is Kay, “Cybernetics, Informa- 
tion, Life” and Andy Pickering, “Cyborg History and the World War II Regime,” Per- 
spectives on Science 3, no. 1 (1995): 1—48. 

26. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics; or. Control and Communication in the Animal 
and the Machine (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1948),p. 132. 

27. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d ed. (Chicago: 
University of Chicago Press, 1970); Foucault, The Order of Things. Both Kuhn and 
Foucault substantially revised their theories in later years. The vision of historical 
change in Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, translated by Robert Hurley 
(New York: Vintage Books, 1980), is much closer to sedation than are his earlier 

28. The simulation is the creation of Gregory P. Garvey of Concordia U niversity. An 
account of it can be found in Thomas E. Linehan, ed.. Visual Proceedings: The Art and 
Interdisciplinary Programs of Siggraph 93 (New York: Association for Computing Ma- 
chinery, 1993), p. 125. 

29. “A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age” can be found (along with skeptical 
commentaries, mine among them) at the FEED Web site,< 

30. Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theortj of Communi- 
cation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949). 

31. Doyle, On Beyond Living, makes the point that the construction of information 
as primary, with materiality as supplemental, is a rhetorical rather than an experimental 

296 / Notes to Pages 18-23 

accomplishment. He argues that the discourse of molecular biology functions as 
"rhetorical software,” for it operates as if it were running a program on the hardware of 
the laboratory apparatus to produce results that the research alone could not accom- 
plish. See also Kay, “Cybernetics, Information, Life.” 

32. Donald M. MaeKav, Information, Mechanism, and Meaning (Cambridge: MIT 
Press, 1969). 

33. Carolyn Marvin, “Information and History,” in Slack and Fejes, The Ideology of 
the Information Age, pp. 49-62. 

34. In response to a presentation by Alex Bavelas at the eighth Many Conference, 
Shannon remarked that he did not see a “close connection” between the semantic ques- 
tions that concerned Bavelas and his own emphasis on “finding the best encoding of 
symbols.” Foerster, Mead, andTeuber, Cybernetics (Eighth Conference, 1951), 8:22. 

35. Xerox PARC has been at the forefront of developing the idea of “ubiquitous com- 
puting,” with computers embedded unobtrusively throughout the home and workplace 
environments. See Mark Weiser, “The Computer for the 21st Century,” Scientific 
American 265 (September 1991): 94-104. For an account of how computers are trans- 
forming contemporary architecture and living patterns, see William J. Mitchell, City of 
Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995). 

36. Sherry Turlde discusses the fascination of VR worlds in Life on the Screen: Iden- 
tity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995). Stone, The War of 
Desire and Technology, proposes that VR technologies undo the commonsense notion 
that one person inhabits one body. She suggests instead that we think of the subject 
“warranted by” the body rather than contai ned within it. 

37. For an account of the extensive connections between cybernetics and the mili- 
tary, see Paul N. Edv'ards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse 
in Cold War America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), and Les Levidow and Kevin 
Robins, eds., Cyborg Worlds: The Military Information Society (London: Free Associ- 
ation Books, 1989). 

38. Don Ihde develops the full resonances of “lifeworld” from his grounding in phe- 
nomenology in Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth (Bloomington: 
Indiana University' Press, 1990), showing how the contemporary' world is marked by a 
double attraction toward technology and toward the “natural” world simultaneously. 

39. The notorious case is Autodesk’s initiative to develop VR software that cited 
Neuromancer; see John Walker, “Through the Looking Glass: Beyond ‘User’ Inter- 
faces,” CADalyst (December 1989), 42, and Randall Walser, “On the Road to Cyberia: 
A Few Thoughts on Autodesk’s Initiative,” CADalyst (December 1989), 43. 

40. An important work linking postmodern fiction with cybernetic technologies is 
David Porush, The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction (New York: Methuen, 1985). 
Porush defines cybernetic fiction as self-reflexive fictions that look to cybernetics both 
for their themes and for the literary machinery of their texts. 

41. Jean-Franyois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, 
translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Min- 
nesota Press, 1984); Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of the Postmodern: History, Theory, 
Fiction (New' York: Routledge, 1994); and Brian McHale, ConstructingPostmodemism 
(New York: Routledge, 1992) and Postmodern Fiction (New York: Methuen, 1 981). 

42. Bernard Wolfe, Limbo (New York: Random House, 1952). 

43. Philip K. Dick: We Can Build You (London: Grafton Books, 1986), first pub- 

Notes to Pages 2 t, - 2 8 / 297 

lislied in 1969; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep P (New York: Doubleday, 1968); 
Dr. Bloodmoney; or. How We Got Along, after the Bomb (New York: Carroll and Graf, 
1988), first published in 1 965; and Ubik (London: Grafton Books, 1973), first published 
in 1969. 

44. Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (New York: Bantam, 1992); Greg Bear, Blood 
Music (New York: Ace Books, 1985); Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2: A Novel ( New York: 
Farrar Straus Giroux, 1995); and Cole Perriman, Terminal Games (New York: Bantam, 

Chapter Two 

1. The paradox is discussed in N. Katherine Ilayles, Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder 
in Contemporary Literature and Science (Ithaca: Cornell University' Press, 1990), 
pp. 31-60. 

2. Self-organizing systems are discussed in Gregoire Nicolis and Ilya Prigogine, Ex- 
ploring Complexity: An Introduction (New York: Freeman and Company, 1989); Roger 
Lewin, Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos (New York: Macmillan, 1992); and 
M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and 
Chaos (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992). 

3. Friedrich A. Kittler, Discourse Networks, 1800-1900, translated by Michael 
Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 193. 

4. The fluidity ofwriting on the computer is eloquently explored by Michael Joyce in 
Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan 
Press, 1995). 

5. Howard Rheingold surveys the new virtual technologies in Virtual Reality (New 
York: Summit Books, 1991). Also useful is Ken Pimentel and Kevin Teixeira, Virtual Re- 
ality: Through the New Looking Glass (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993). Benjamin 
Woolley takes a skeptical approach toward claims for the new technology in Virtual 
Worlds: A Journey in Hyped Hyperreality (Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1992). 

6 . Allucquere Roseanne Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the 
Mechanical Age (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995). 

7. Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: 
Simon and Schuster, 1995). 

8 . In The Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power (New York: Ba- 
sic Books, 1988), Shoshana Zuboff explores, through three case studies, tire changes in 
U.S. workplaces as industries become informatted. 

9. Computer law is discussed in Katie Hafner and John Markoff, Cyberpunk: Out- 
laws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier (New' York: Simon and Schuster, 1991); 
also informative is Bruce Sterling, The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the 
Electronic Frontier ( New York; Bantam, 1992). 

10. Turkle documents computer network romances in Life on the Screen. Nicholson 
Baker’s Vox: A Novel (New' York: Random House, 1992) imaginatively explores the 
erotic potential for better living through telecommunications; and Rheingold looks at 
the future of erotic encounters in cyberspace in “Teledildonics and Beyond,” Virtual 
Reality, pp. 345-77. 

1 1 . Among the studies that explore these connections are Jay Bolter, Writing Space: 
The Computer, Hypertext, and the History ofWriting (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erl- 

298 / Notes to Pages 29-35 

baum Associates, 1991); Michael Heim, Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of 
Word Processing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987); and Mark Poster, The 
Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context (Chicago: University of 
Chicago Press, 1990), 

12. Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist 
Feminism in the 1980s,” Socialist Review 80 ( 1985): 65-108; see Donna Haraway, “The 
High Cost of Information in Post World War II Evolutionary Biology: Ergonomics, 
Semiotics, and the Sociobiology of Communications Systems,” Philosophical Forum 
13, nos. 2-3 (1981-82): 244-75.' 

13. Jacques Lacan, “Radiophonies,” Scilicet 2/3 (1970): 55, 68. For floating signi- 
fiers, see Le Seminaire XX: Encore (Paris: Seuil, 1975), pp. 22, 35. 

14. Although presence and absence loom much larger in Lacanian psycholinguistics 
than do pattern and randomness, Lacan was not uninterested in information theory. In 
the 1954-55 Seminar, he played with incorporating ideas from information theory and 
cybernetics into psychoanalysis. See especially “The Circuit,” pp. 77-90, and “Psycho- 
analysis and Cybernetics; or. On the Nature of Language,” pp. 294-308, in The Seminar 
of Jacques Lacan: Booh II, edited byJacques-Alain Miller (New York: W. W. Norton and 
Company, 1991). 

15. For an individual event y, the information I(s ) = -log ply), where p is the prob- 
ability, expressed as a decimal between 1 and 0, that*, will occur. To give a sense ofhow 
this function varies, consider that -log base 2 of .9 (an event that occurs nine times out of 
ten) is .15, whereas -log base 2 of .1 (an event that occurs only one in ten times) is 3.33. 
Hence, as the probability p decreases (becomes less likely), -log p increases. In the case 
of elements whose probabilities do not conditionally depend on one another, the aver- 
age information of a source s is I(.s) = X - p(y) log p(y), where p is again the probability 
thaty will occur. 

16. Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communi- 
cation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949). For a further discussion of this as- 
pect of information theory, see Hayles, Chaos Bound, pp. 31-60. 

17. The gender encoding implicit in "man” (rather than “human”) is also reflected in 
the emphasis on tool usage as a defining characteristic rather than, say, altruism or nur- 
turing, traits traditionally encoded female. 

18. Kenneth P. Oakley, Man the Tool-Maker (London: Trustees of the British Mu- 
seum, 1949), p. 1. 

19. Marshall MeLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: 
McGrawHill, 1964), pp. 41— 47. 

20. The term homeostasis, or self- regulating stability through cybernetic corrective 
feedback, was introduced by physiologist Walter B. Cannon in “Organization for Phys- 
iological Homeostasis,” Physiological Reviews 9 ( 1929): 399-431. Cannon’s work influ- 
enced Norbert Wiener, and homeostasis became an important concept in the initial 
phase of cybernetics from 1946 to 1953; see chapters 3 and 4 for details. 

21. Key figures in moving from homeostasis to self-organization were Heinz von 
Foerster, especially in Observing Systems (Salinas, Calif.: Intersystems Publications, 
1981), and Humberto R. Maturanaand Francisco J. Varela, Autopoie, sis and Cognition: 
The Realization of the Living (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1980), discussed in detail in chap- 
ter 6. 

22. Rheingold, Virtual Reality, pp. 13—49; Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Ftt- 

Notes to Pages 36-46 / 299 

hire of Robot and Human Intelligence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 
pp. 1-5, 116-22. 

23. William Gibson, Netiromancer(New York: Ace Books, 1984), p. 51. 

24. Ibid., p. 16. 

25. The seminal text is Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics; or. Control and Communica- 
tion in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1948). 

26. Henry James, The Art of the Novel (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937), 
pp. 47, 46. 

27. Peter Kollock, my colleague at UCLA and a sociologist, has studied virtual com- 
munities at several sites on the Internet, See Marc Smith and Peter Kollock, eds., Com- 
munities in Cyberspace (London: Routledge, 1998); see also Stone’s discussion of 
MUDs in The War of Desire and Technology, Turkle’s discussion in Life on the Screen, 
and Amy Bruckman’s article “Gender Swapping on the Internet,” available at anony- 
mous <>. Espen J. Aarseth has a 
discussionpf the literary and formal characteristics of MUDs in Cybertext: Perspectives 
on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1997). 

28. David Harvey, The Condition of Post-modernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of 
Cultural Change (New York; Blackwell, 1989). 

29. The material basis for informatics is meticulously documented in James R. 
Beniger, The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Informa- 
tion Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986). 

30. For an account of how tracks are detected, see Hafner and Markoff, Cyberpunk, 
pp. 3.5-40, 68-71. 

31. Don DeLillo, White Noise ( 1985; New York: Penguin, 1986). 

32. Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler, translated bv William Weaver 
(New York: Ilarcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), pp. 26-27, originally published in 1979 
in Italian. 

33. Ibid., p. 220. 

34. William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (New York: Grove, 1959). 

35. David Porush discusses the genre of “cybernetic fiction," which he defines as fic- 
tions that resist the dehumanization that is sometimes attendant on cybernetics, in The 
Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction (New York: Methuen, 1985); Burroughs’s titular story 
is discussed on pp. 85-111. Robin Lydenberghas a fine exposition of Burroughs’s style 
in Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William S. Burroughs' Fiction (Ur- 
bana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 

36. Burroughs, Naked Lunch, p. xxxix. 

37. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri C. Spivak ( Baltimore: 
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976). 

38. Mark Leyner, My Cousin , Mu Gastroenterologist (New York: Harmony Books, 
1990), pp. 6-7. ' 

39. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” Illuminations, translated bv Harry Zohn 
(New York: Schocken, 1969). 

40. Jean-Franyois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, 
translated bv Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Min- 
nesota Press, 1984). 

41 . It is significant in this regard that Andrew Ross calls for cultural critics to con- 
sider themselves hackers in “Hacking Away at the Counterculture,” in Technoculture, 

300 / Notes to Pages < 6-54 

edited by Constance Penley and Andrew Ross ( Minneapolis: U niversity of Minnesota 
Press), pp. 107-34, 

42. Roland Barthes, S/Z, translated by Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 

43. George W. S. Trow, Within the Context of No Context (Boston: Little Brown, 

44. Kittler, Discourse Networks. Joseph Tabbi and Michael Wurtz further explore 
the implications of medial ecology in Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media 
Ecology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996). 

45 . Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer, Pu re War, translated by Mark Polizzotti ( N ew 
York: Semiotext(e), 1983). 

46. “Embodied virtuality” is Mark Weiser’s phrase in “The Computer for the 21st 
Century,” Scientific American 265 (September 1 991 ): 94-104. Weiser distinguishes be- 
tween technologies that put the user into a simulation with the computer ( virtual real- 
ity') and those that embed computers within already existing environments (embodied 
virtuality or ubiquitous computing). In virtual reality 7 , the user's sensorium is redirected 
into functionalities compatible with the simulation; in embodied virtuality, the senso- 
rium continues to function as it normally would but with an expanded range made pos- 
sible through the environmentally embedded computers. 

Chapter Three 

1. “Conferences on Feedback Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems in Biol- 
ogy and the Social Sciences” (March 8-9, 1946), p. 62, Frank Fremont-Smith 
Papers, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard University, Cambridge, 

2. This explanation of information theory by Wiener appears in “The Impact of 
Communication Engineering on Philosophy 7 ,” Box 14, Folder765, Norbert Wiener Pa- 
pers, Collection MC-22, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Massachusetts 
Institute of Technology Archives, Cambridge, Mass. See also Norbert Wiener, “Ther- 
modynamics of the Message,” in Norbert Wiener: Collected Works with Commentaries, 
edited by Pesi Masani, vol. 4 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985), pp. 206-1 1. Wieners treat- 
ment of information is conceptually similar to Shannon’s, and todays version is often 
called the Shannon- Wiener theory. 

3. For a full theoretical treatement, see Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, The 
Mathematical Theory of Communication (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949). 
Weaver included in the volume an essay explaining Shannon's theory. According to Eric 
A. Weiss, Shannon told him in correspondence that Weaver put together the volume 
without consulting Shannon. Weiss wrote: “Weaver was a big-shot scientific gate- 
keeper at the time; Shannon was a more or less nobody. Weaver took some notes ... or 
something by Shannon and turned it into the 1949 writing putting his name first and 
without really getting Shannon’s consent. Shannon felt that Weaver had made agood ex- 
planation, this was one of Weaver’s skills, and did not object seriously at the time” (Weiss 
to author, private communication). 

4. Richard Doyle discusses the reification of information in the context of molecular 
biology in On Beyond Living: Rhetorical Transformations in the Life Sciences (Stan- 
ford: Stanford University Press, 1997). See also Evelyn Fox Kellers analysis of the dis- 

Notes to Pages 54-58 / 301 

embodiment of information in molecular biology in Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death : Es- 
says on Language, Gender, and Science (New York: Routledge, 1992), especially chap- 
ters 5, 8, and the epilogue. Lily E. Kay critically analyzes the emergence of the idea of a 
genetic “code” in “Cybernetics, Information, Life: The Emergence of Scriptural Rep- 
resentations of Heredity,” Configurations 5 (winter 1997): 23-92. For a discussion of 
how this disembodied view of information began to circulate through the culture, see 
Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee, The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon 
(New York: W, H. Freeman and Company, 1995). 

5. Heinz von Foerster, Margaret Mead, and Hans Lukas Teuber, eds.. Cybernetics: 
Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems, vols. 6-10 
(Josiah Macyjr. Foundation, 1952) (Eighth Conference, 1951 ), 8:22. The published se- 
ries is hereafter cited as Cybernetics with the number and year oi the conference and 
the volume number indicated. 

6. Donald M. MacKay, “In Search of Basic Symbols," Cybernetics (Eighth Confer- 
ence, 1951), 8:222. A fuller account can be found in Donald M. MacKay, Information, 
Mechanism, and Meaning (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969). 

7. Nicolas S. Tzannes, “The Concept of ‘Meaning’ in Information Theory” (August 
7, 1968), in Warren McCulloch Papers, American Philosophical Society Library, 
Philadelphia, B/M139, Box 1. 

8. In Mary Catherine Bateson’s Our Own Metaphor: A Personal Account of a Con- 
ference on the Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation ( 1972; Washington, 
D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), she quotes her father, Gregory' Bateson, as 
advising, “Stamp out nouns!” The difficulty' of this project maybe indicated by the fact 
that the slogan itself contains a noun. 

9. Warren S. McCulloch, Embodiments of Mind (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1965), 
p. 2. Conventional in the rhetoric of the 1950s, the purported universality of “man” in- 
dicates how ideological assumptions were inscribed into a universal formulation and 
then erased from view once the universal stood for the embodied instantiation (the ac- 
tual human beings who compose humanity). 

10. Steve J. Heims, The Cybernetics Group (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 
pp. 31-51, especially p. 41. For the classic papers on the McCulloch-Pitts neuron, see 
Warren S. McCulloch and Walter II. Pitts, “A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent 
in Nervous Activity',” and Warren S. McCulloch, “A Heterarchy of Values Determined 
by the Topology of Nervous Nets,” both in McCulloch, Embodiments of Mind, 
pp. 19-39, 40-45. 

11. McCulloch recalls meeting Walter Pitts in “The Beginning of Cybernetics," 
McCulloch Papers, B/M 139, Box 2. 

12. Automata theory works with highly abstract models of computers, especially 
Turing machines. Just as Maxwells Demon is a thought experiment, so a Turing ma- 
chine can be called a thought computer. The idea is to propose a conceptual scheme 
that, although it might never be realized in an experimental situation, poses interesting 
problems and leads to significant conclusions. Named after its inventor Alan Turing, the 
Turing machine consists of a control box containing a finite program that moves back 
and forth along a finite tape inscribed with symbols, conventionally ones and zeros writ- 
ten in square boxes. The control box scans the tape one square at a time, and on the ba- 
sis of what it reads and what its program calls for it to do, prints another symbol on the 
square (which may or may not be the same as the one already there) and moves one 

302 / Notes to Pages 58-65 

square to the right or left, where it goes through the procedure again until it has finished 
executing its program’s instructions, 

13. McCulloch, “The Beginning of Cybernetics, ”p. 12. 

14. “Conferences on Feedback Mechanisms,” p. 46. 

15. McCulloch Papers, B/M139, Box2. 

16. Ibid. 

17. See Lawrence Kubie, “A Theoretical Application to Some Neurological Prob- 
lems of the Properties of Excitation Waves Which Move in Closed Circuits,” Brain 53 
(1930): 166-7S. 

18. Lews Carroll, Sylvia and Bruno Concluded ( London: Macmillan, 1893), p. 169; 
Jorge Luis Borges, “Of Exactitude in Science,” A Universal History of Infamy, trans- 
lated by Norman Thomas di Givanni (New York: Dutton, 1972), pp. 141ff. 

19. Andrea Nye, Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic (New 
York: Routledge, 1990). 

20. This insight is, of course, a central achievement of the social construction of sci- 
entific knowledge. Nancy Cartwright addresses it powerfully in How the Laws of 
Physics Lie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983). For eloquent demonstrations of it, 
see Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boijle, 
and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), and Bruno 
Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society 
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987). 

21. Warren S. McCulloch, “How Nervous Structures Have Ideas” (speech to the 
American Neurological Association, June 13, 1949), p. 3, McCulloch Papers, B/M139, 
Box 1 . 

22. Reprinted in McCulloch, Embodiments of Mind, pp. 387-98, quotations on 
p. 393. 

23. Cybernetics (Seventh Conference, 1950), 7:155. 

24. Claude E. Shannon, “Presentation of a Maze-Solving Machine,” Cybernetics 
(Eighth Conference, 1951 ), 8:173-80. 

25. Ibid., p. xix. 

26. Mark Seltzer makes a similar point about scientific models (especially the sec- 
ond law of thermodynamics) serving as a relay system in Bodies and Machines (New 
York: Routledge, 1992). 

27 . Cybernetics (Eighth Conference, 1951). 8:173. “Singing” acquired its name 
from feedback loops that make an audio amplifier break into oscillation, resulting in a 
whistling in the operator’s headphones (information from Eric Weiss, private commu- 

28. How quickly the equation between man and machine proliferated into social 
theory can be seen in F. S. C. Northrop’s Ideological Differences and World Order: 
Studies in the Philosophy and Science of the World’s Cultures (New Haven: Yale Uni- 
versity' Press, 1949). In his contribution to the volume, “Ideological Man and Natural 
Man" (pp. 407-28), Northrop relies extensively on the McCulloch-Pitts neuron as well 
as the cybernetic manifesto written by Wiener, Rosenblueth, and Bigelow (discussed in 
chapter 4) to bring together normative social theory' with “a complete unified natural 
philosophy” (p. 424). Like Wiener, Northrop associates cybernetics with liberal hu- 
manism , arguing that reverberating loops and teleological mechanisms confirm that the 
correct model for human subjectivity is the “moral, thoughtful, choosing, purposeful in- 

Notes to Pages 65-73 / 303 

dividual” (p. 426). Unity within the subject can be achieved only when ideology is 
brought into harmony with “scientifically verified and conceived natural neurological 
man” fashioned from McCulloch-Pitts neurons and Wiener's feedback loops. Only 
when “the philosophy giving instructions to his motor neurons” is congruent with cy- 
bernetic modeling can such an individual be “a single, a composed, and a whole man” 
(p.424). An exchange of letters between Northrop, McCulloch, and Wiener laid out the 
network of ideas that Northrop picked up from the Macy Conferences and that pro- 
vided the basis for his book (McCulloch Papers, B/M139, Box 2). 

29. W. Ross Ashby, “Homeostasis,” in Cybernetics (Ninth Conference, 1952), 

30. Ashby fulfilled his ambition to move to more complex modeling in W. Ross 
Ashby, Design for a Brain: The Origin of Adaptive Behavior (London: Chapman and 
Hall, 1952). Also of interest is his book Introduction to Cybernetics ( London: Chapman 
and Hall, 1961). 

31. John Stroud, “The Psychological Moment in Perception,” in Cybernetics (Sixth 
Conference, 1949), 6:27-28.' 

32. Cybernetics (Sixth Conference. 1949), 6:147, 153. 

33. Ibid., p. 153. 

34. Kubie, “A Theoretical Application.” 

35. Cybernetics (Sixth Conference, 1949), 6:74. 

36. Cybernetics (Seventh Conference, 1950), 7:210, 222. 

37. A copy of the speech in the McCulloch Papers is prefaced with a note that the 
copy was reproduced without the authors consent or knowledge and is adorned with a 
skull and crossbones to indicate its pirated status. Its pirated status notwithstanding, it 
is word for word the same as the version that McCulloch later published in Embodi- 
ments of Mind. If it really was pirated, one wonders howit ended up among McCulloch’s 
papers. Whether or not McCulloch had a hand in circulating this version, he did send 
copies of the speech to his friends. 

38. Heims recounts this part of the tale in The Cybernetics Group, pp. 136ff. 

39. Letter dated April 11, 1950, McCulloch Papers, B/M139, Box2. 

40. Heims, The Cybernetics Group, p. 136. 

41. “The Place of Emotions in the Feedback Concept,” Cybernetics (Ninth Confer- 
ence, 1952). 9:48. 

42. As evidence that emotions and other psychic experiences have a neurological ba- 
sis, Kubie referred repeatedly to “psychosurgery” — that is, lobotomy — which by de- 
stroying tissue proved that brain functions have a physiological basis. Presumably he 
referred to this cruel practice (which Wiener had elsewhere satirized as a way to make 
custodial care of patients easier) to establish that emotions have a material and quanti- 
tative dimension. Yet when he was asked to elaborate, he answered that he “did not want 
to discuss psychosurgery” but rather was “simply indicating some of the questions we 
ask ourselves about the effects of any procedure on emotional processes, the points at 
which they are vulnerable and alterable” (“The Place of Emotions in the Feedback 
Concept,” Cybernetics [Ninth Conference, 1952], 9:69). His transparent motive was to 
establish his credentials as a physical scientist who dealt in quantifiable data, another in- 
dication of the uneasy relations between him and the experimentalists. 

43. Letter dated March 30, 1954, McCulloch Papers, B/M139, Box 2. 

44. Letterdated May 29, 1969, Fremont-Smith Papers. 

304 / Notes to Pages 73-84 

45. Letter dated June 2, 1969, Fremont-Smith Papers. 

46. Letter dated July 1, 1969, Fremont-Smith Papers. 

47. Stewart Brand, ‘“For Gods Sake, Margaret’: Conversation with Gregory 
Bateson and Margaret Mead,” Co-Evolution Quarterly (summer 1976), 32, 34 (Bate- 
son’s diagram is on p. 37). 

48. Letter dated November 8, 1954, McCulloch Papers, B/M139, Box 2. 

49. Letter dated November 22, 1954, McCulloch Papers, B/M139, Box 2. 

50. Bateson, Our Own Metaphor (hereafter cited in the text as OOM). 

51. At the ninth conference, Mead insisted that language is broader than words. 
“We should drop the idea that language is made up of words and that words are tone- 
less sequences of letters on paper, although even on paper there are possibilities for 
poetic overtones. We are dealing here with language in a very general sense, which 
would include posture, gesture, and intonation.” Cybernetics (Ninth Conference, 
1952), 9: 13. 

52. Gregory Bateson, “Our Own Metaphor: Nine Years After,” in A Sacred Unity: 
Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), p. 227. Cather- 
ine had asked Gregory for a letter that might be suitable as an afterword to the second 
edition of Our Own Metaphor. Although she evidently decided not to use the letter, it 
was later published. 

53. Ibid., p. 225. 

54. Cybernetics (Tenth Conference, 1953), 10:69. 

55. J. Y. Lettvin, H. R. Maturana.W. S. McCulloch, and W. II. Pitts, “What the Frog’s 
Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain,” Proceedings of the Institute for Radio Engineers 47, no. 
11 (November 1959): 1940-59. Reprinted in McCulloch, Embodiments of Mind, 
pp. 230-55. 

56. Letter from Janet Freed to Warren McCulloch, dated January' 31, 1947, 
Fremont-Smith Papers. 

57. This is an educated guess based on reading her comments in the typed manu- 
script of “Chairman and Editors’ Meeting,” dated April 27, 1949, pp. 3ff., Fremont- 
Smith Papers. 

58. Ibid., pp. 3, 26. 

59. Dorothy E. Smith, The Everyday World, as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology 
(Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987); see also Dorothy E. Smith, The Con- 
ceptual Practices of Power: A Feminist Sociology of Knowledge (Boston: Northeastern 
University Press, 1990). 

Chapter Four 

1. See Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Ballantine Books, 
1972), p. 251, for an interpretation of the question. “It is not communicationally mean- 
ingful to ask whether the blind mans stick or the scientist’s microscope are ‘parts’ of the 
men who use them. Both stick and microscope are important pathways of communica- 
tion and, as such, are parts of the network in which we are interested; but no boundary 
line — e. g., halfway up the stick — can he relevant in a description ot the toplogy ol 
this net.” 

2. Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist 
Feminism in the 1980s,” Socialist Review 80 ( 1985); 6.5- 108. 

Notes to Pages 85-91 / 305 

3. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of 
Chicago Press, 1980); and Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of 
Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). 

4. For an analysis of the strategies used to proclaim cybernetics a universal science, 
see GeofBowker, “HowTo Be Universal: Some Cybernetic Strategies, 1943-1970,” So- 
cial Studies of Science 23 (1993): 107-27. 

5. Norbert Wiener, "Men, Machines, and the World About,” Box 13, Folder 750, 
Norbert Wiener Papers, Collection MC-22, Institute Archives and Special Collections, 
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Archives, Cambridge, Mass. Also published in 
Norbert Wiener: Collected Works with Commentaries, edited by Pesi Masani, vol. 4 
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985), pp. 793-99. 

6. For a study tracing Wieners postwar views, see Steve J. Heims, John von 
Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and 
Death (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1980). 

7. Peter Calison, “The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic 
Vision,” Critical Inquin j 21 (1994): 228-66. 

8. Otto Mayr, Authority, Liberty, and Automatic Machinenj in Early Modem Eu- 
rope (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986). 

9. The question is posed most powerfully in Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner (originally 
published in 1968 under the title Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) (New York: 
Ballantine Books, 1982). 

10. It remained for a novelist, Kurt Vonnegut, to envision the full implications of 
Wiener’s cybernetic program if it were fully carried out: see Kurt Vonnegut, Player Pi- 
ano (New York: Delacorte Press/Seymour Laurence, 1952). 

11. See, for example, Norbert Wiener, “The Averages of an Analytical Function and 
the Brownian Movement,” in Norbert Wiener: Collected Works, vol. 1, pp. 450-55. 

1 2. Norbert Wiener, “The Historical Background of Harmonic Analysis,” American 
Mathematical Society Semicentennial Publications, vol. 2 (Providence, R.I.: American 
Mathematical Society, 1938), pp. 513-22. 

13. Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, 2d 
ed. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954) (hereafter cited in the text as HU), p. 10, 

14. Wiener of course knew Shannon; both were participants in the Maey Confer- 
ences. Although they conceived of information in similar ways, Wiener was more in- 
clined to see information and entropy as opposites. See also n. 3, ch. 3. 

15. James R. Beniger, The Con trol Revolution : Technological and Economic Origins 
of the Information Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986). 

16. Michel Serres brilliantly analyzes the progression from the mechanical to the 
thermodynamical in “Turner Translates Carnot," Hermes: Literature, Science, Philoso- 
phy, edited by Josue V. Harari and David F. Bell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University 
Press, 1982).' 

17. Beniger, The Control Revolution, convincingly shows how technologies of speed 
and communication precipitated a “crisis of control" that, once solved, initiated a new' 
cycle of crisis. 

18. Norbert Wiener, “The Role of the Observer,” Philosophy of Science 3 (1936): 311. 

19. Pesi Masani, Norbert Wiener, 1894-1964, Vita Mathematica Series, vol. 5 
(Basel: Birkhaeuser, 1989), calls Wieners statement “a half-truth,” “one of the solitary 
instances in which this very coherent thinker articulated badly” (p. 128). 

306 / Notes to Pages 92-102 

20. Norbert Wiener, I Am a Mathematician: The I^ater Life of a Prodigy (Garden 
City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956), pp. 85-86. 

21. Ibid., p. 86. 

22. Heims, John von Neumann and. Norbert Wiener, pp. 155-57. 

23. Norbert Wiener, Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth (New York: Simon and 
Schuster, 1953). 

24. Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow, “Behavior, Purpose, 
and Teleology;” Philosophy of Science 10 ( 1943): 18-24. 

25. Richard Taylor, “Comments on a Mechanistic Conception of Purposefulness,” 
Philosophy of Science 17 (1950): 310-17. 

26. Arturo Rosenblueth and Norbert Wiener, “Purposeful and Non-Purposeful Be- 
havior.” Philosophy of Science 17 (1950): 318. 

27. Bovvker, “How to Be Universal,” pp. 107-27. 

28. Richard Taylor, “Purposeful and Non-Purposeful Behavior: A Rejoinder,” Phi- 
losopluj of Science 17 ( 1950): 327-32. 

29. Norbert Wiener, “The Nature of Analogy,” (1950), Box 12, Folder 655, Wiener 

30. Michael A. Arbib and Mary B. Hesse, The Construction of Reality (Cambridge, 
England: Cambridge University Press, 1986). 

31. Michael J. Apter draws the comparison between Saussurian linguistics and 
cybernetics in “Cybernetics: A Case Study of a Scientific Subject, Complex,” in 
The Sociology of Science: Sociological Review Monograph, no. 18, edited by Paul 
Halmos (Keele, Staffordshire: Keele University, 1972), pp. 93-115, especially 
p. 104. 

32. Wiener, “The Nature of Analogy,” p. 2. 

33. I rely here on Galison’s detailed account of Wiener’s work with antiaircraf t de- 
vices in “The Ontology of the Enemy.” 

34. Norbert Wiener, “Sound Communication with the Deaf,” in Norbert Wiener: 
Collected Works, vol. 4, pp. 409-11. 

35. Cited in Walter A. Rosenblith and Jerome B. Wiesner, : “The Life Sciences and 
Cybernetics,” one of the articles written in tribute to Wiener on the occasion of his death 
and published as “Norbert Wiener, 1894-1964,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Dis- 
ease 140 ( 1965): 3-16. Rosenblith and Wiesner’s contribution is on pp. 3-8. 

36. Masani, Norbert Wiener, pp. 20.5-6, 

37. Rosenblith and Wiesner, “From Philosophy to Mathematics to Biology,” p. 7. 

38. Mark Seltzer, Bodies and Machines (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 14. 

39. Ibid., p. 41. 

40. Leo Szilard, “On the Reduction of Entropy as a Thermodynamic System Caused 
by Intelligent Beings , " Zeitschriftfiir Physik 53 (1929): 840-56. 

41. Leon Brillouin, “Maxwell’s Demon Cannot Operate: Information and Entropy, 
I.” Journal of Applied Physics 212 (March 1951): 334-57. Much of this material is also 
available in Ilarvev S. Leff and Andrew F. Rex, eds Maxwell’s Demon: Entropy, Infor- 
mation, Computing (Princeton: Princeton University 7 Press, 1990). 

42. Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Commu- 
nication (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949), 

43. Warren Weaver offered this explanation in his essay interpreting Shannon’s the- 
ory 7 in ibid. 

Notes to Pages 103-15 / 307 

44. See N. Katherine Hayles, Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary 
Literature and Science (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990); for a major statement 
of this thesis, see Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos: Man’s Sac 
Dialogue with Nature (New York: Bantam, 1984). 

45. Wiener's views on photosynthesis and Maxwell's Demon are discussed by 
Masani, Norhert Wiener, pp. 155-56. See also Norbert Wiener, “Cybernetics (Light 
and Maxwells Demon),” Scientia (Italy) 87 (1952): 233-35, reprinted in Norhert 
Wiener: Collected Works, vol. 4, pp. 203-5. 

46. Michael Serres plays multiple riffs on this idea in The Parasite, translated by 
Lawrence R. Schehr (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University' Press, 1982). 

47. Valentino Braitenberg delightfully explores the possibility that simple machines 
can demonstrate behavioral equivalents to emotional states, including fear, love, envy, 
and ambition, by constructing a series of “thought machines” (machines designed in 
principle but not actually built). See Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology 
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984). 

48. Galison, “Ontology of the Enemy,” p. 232. 

49. Despite Wieners efforts, after World War II cybernetics became more, not less, 
entangled with military' projects. The close connection between the military and cyber- 
netics is detailed by Paul N. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of 
Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), and Les Levidowand 
Kevin Robins, eds., Cyborg Worlds: The Military Information Society (London: Free 
Association Books, 1989). 

50. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics ; or. Control and Communication in the Animal 
and the Machine, 2d ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1 961 ). 

51 . Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976). 

52. Masani, Norbert Wiener, p. 21 . 

Chapter Five 

1. David N. Samuelson, “Limbo: The Great American Dystopia,” Extrapolation 19 
(1977): 76-87. 

2. Bernard Wolfe, Limbo (New York: Random House, 1952), p. 412. 

3. Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer. Pure War, translated by Mark Polizzotti (New 
York: Semiotext(e), 1983), pp. 91-102. 

4. Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology' and Socialist 
Feminism in the 1980s,” Socialist Review 80 (1985): 65-108. 

5. This portion of the argument appeared in N. Katherine Hayles, “The Life Cycle 
of Cyborgs: Writing the Posthuman,” in A Question of Identity: Women, Science and. 
Literature, edited by 1 Marina Benjamin (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 
1993), pp. 152-72, especially pp. 156-61. 

6 . Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science 
Fiction (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 9. 

7. The idea of “tonus” (defined as muscle tone) may be a punning wink toward 
“clonus,” spasms by muscles or groups of muscles. Wiener discusses Warren McCulloch’s 
research on clonus in Cybernetics; or. Control and Communication in the Animal and, 
the Machine (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1948). 

8 . Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics. Wolfe probably also read Wiener’s popular book 

308 / Notes to Pages 116-28 

The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 

9. W. Norbert [Norbert Wiener], “The Brain,” in Crossroads in Time, edited by 
Groff Conklin (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Books, 1950), pp. 299-312 (quotation on 
p. 300). A typescript version, with different names for the characters and with manu- 
script corrections, can be found in Box 12, Norbert Wiener Papers, Collection MC-22, 
Institute Archives and Special Collections, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 
Archives, Cambridge, Mass. 

10. Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, translated by Patrick 
Camiller (London: Verso, 1989), p. 10. 

11. Richard Doyle, On Beyond Living: Rhetorical Transformations in the Life Sci- 
ences (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997). 

12. Bernard Wolfe, “Self Portrait,” Galaxi Science Fiction 3 (November 1951): 64. 

13. “Self Portrait” also suggests a link between cybernetics and McCarthyism when 
the narrator consolidates his position by denouncing a scientific rival as a security risk 
and testifying against him at a hearing. The context presents this move as reprehensible, 
in line with the satiric tone of the piece. Wolfe was generally sympathetic to leftist causes 
and did not participate in the communist hysteria that characterized these years in 
the United States. W'hen he was a young man, he served as a security guard for Leon 
Trotsky in Mexico. 

14. Douglas D. Noble, “Mental Materiel: The Militarization of Learning and Intel- 
ligence in U.S. Education,” in Cyborg Worlds: The Military Information Society, edited 
by Les Levidow and Kevin Robbins (London: Free Association Books, 1989), 
pp. 13-12. 

15. For a discussion of neocortical warfare, see Col. Richard Szafranski, U.S. Air 
Force, “Harnessing Battlefield Technology: Neocortical Warfare? The Acme of Skill.” 
Military Review: The Professional Journal of the United States Army (November 1994), 
41-54. See also Chris Hables Gray', “The Cyborg Soldier: The U.S. Military and the 
Post-modern Warrior,” in Levidow and Robbins, Cyborg Worlds, pp. 43-72. 

16. Carolyn Geduld, Wolfes biographer, has an excellent discussion of Bergler’s in- 
fluence on Wolfe in Bernard Wolfe (New York: Twayne, 1972), pp. 54-62. 

17. Geduld describes the author as a “very small man with a thick, sprouting mus- 
tache, a fat cigar, and a voice that grabs attention" (ibid., p. 15). 

18. Edmund Bergler discusses narcissism in a book whose title gives it top (or bot- 
tom) billing. The Basic Neurosis: Oral Regression and Psychic Masochism (New York: 
Grune and Stratton, 1949). 

1 9. For a discussion of Lacans rewriting of Freud in this respect, see Kaja Silverman, 
The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: 
Indiana University Press, 1988). 

20. David Wills, Prosthesis (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), pp. 18, 20. 

21. Bernard Wolfe (ghostwriter, Raymond Rosenthal), Plastics: What Everyone 
Should Know (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1945). 

22. Wolfe, Limbo, p. 294. 

23. Julia Kristeva, “The Novel as Polylogue,” in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Ap- 
proach to Literature and Art, edited by Leon S. Roudiez, translated by Thomas Gora, 
Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 
pp. 159-209. 

Notes to Pages 131-36 / 309 

Chapter Six 

1. J. Y. Lettvin, H. R. Maturana, W, S. McCulloch, and W. H. Pitts, “What the Frog’s 
Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain,” Proceedings of the Institute for Radio Engineers 47, no. 1 1 
(November 1959): 1940-51. 

2. For anecdotal evidence about the importance of reflexivity to these Maey partici- 
pants, see Stewart Brands interview discussed in chapter 3, “‘For God’s Sake. Mar- 
garet’: Conversation with Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead,*’ Co-Evolution 
Quarterly (summer 1976), 32-44. 

3. Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition: The 
Realization of the Living (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1 980), p. xvi (hereafter cited in the text 
as AC). 

4. Heinz von Foerster, “Vita,” in Warren McCulloch Papers, American Philosophi- 
cal Library 7 , Philadelphia, B/M 139, Box 2. 

5. Heinz von Foerster, letter dated May 23, 1949, McCulloch Papers, B/M139, Box 
2. According to Steve Heims, who interviewed von Foerster in 1982, McCulloch had 
first learned of von Foerster’s work when reading one of von Foerster’s papers (pub- 
lished in German ) in which he proposed that memory is stored in a macromolecule (by 
analog)' to the DNA macromolecule’s storage of genetic information). McCulloch im- 
mediately invited von F oerster to the next Macy Conference, where his presentation of 
the idea met a cool reception , in part because by then the Macy group had already con- 
ceptualized memory (through the McCulloch-Pitts neuron) as analogous to binary 
computer memory storage. See Steve J. Heims, The Cybernetics Group (Cambridge: 
MIT Press, 1991), pp. 72-74. 

6 . Heinz von Foerster, Observing Systems, 2ded. (Salinas, Calif.: Intersystems Pub- 
lications, 1984), p. 7. 

7. A similar scenario is imagined in Jorge Luis Borges’s fiction “The Circular Ruins,” 
Ficciones, edited by Anthony Kerrigan(New York: Grove Press, 1962). 

8 . At the Bateson conference in 1968, Gordon Pask illustrated his talk, after refer- 
ring to the “F rog’s Eve” paper, with drawings of men in bowler hats; see Mary 7 Catherine 
Bateson, Our Own Metaphor: A Personal Account of a Conference on the Effects of 
Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation (1972; Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian In- 
stitution Press, 1991), pp. 209-15, especially p. 214. 

9. Norbert Wiener, God and Golem, Inc: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cy- 
bernetics Impinges on Religion (Cambridge: M IT Press, 1964), p. 88 . 

10. For an account of the conference, see Maturana and Varela, Autopoiesis and 
Cognition, p. xvi. 

11. Heinz von Foerster, “Molecular Ethology: An Immodest Proposal for Semantic 
Clarification,” Observing Systems, p. 171. 

12. Lettvin, Maturana, McCulloch, and Pitts, “Frog s Eye,” p. 1950. 

13. Humberto R. Maturana, G. Uribe, and S. Frank, “A Biological Theory of Rela- 
tivistic Color Coding in the Primate Retina,” Archives de Biologia y Medicine Experi- 
mentales, Suplemento No, 1 (Santiago, Chile: N.p., 1968). 

14. An excellent survey of autopoietic theory, from Maturana and Varela to its pro- 
ponents in such diverse fields as Luhmann’s social systems theory' and family therapy, 
can be found in John Mingers, Self-Producing Systems: Implications and Applications 
of Autopoiesis (New York: Plenum Press, 1995). A useful bibliography and survey can 

3 <o / Notes to Pages 137-50 

also be found at Randall Whitaker’s Web site, <http: // 
html>. Of course, the main sources are Maturana and Varela, Autopoiesis and Cogni- 
tion , and Maturana and Varelas later works cited in this chapter. 

15. For a sample, see Brian R. Gaines’s critique of autopoiesis: “Autopoiesis: Some 
Questions” in Autopoiesis: A Theory of Living Organization, edited by Milan Zeleny, 
North Holland Series in General Systems Research, vol. 3 (New York: North Holland, 
1981 ), pp. 145-54. Complaining about verbal obscurities in Maturana’s formulations, 
Gaines notes the difference between “the arts of persuasion and the pursuit of science. 
On the other hand, we have also to accept that the ultimate, undefined terms of any 
theory' are accepted as ‘acts of faith not that they be true ( for the word is meaningless in 
this context), but at least that they be potentially useful. If we go looking at the world in 
terms of unities, recursive self-production, and autopoietic organization, then we shall 
find a certain kind of world: It is not yet clear why we should want it or what we will do 
with it when we have it” (pp. 150-51). 

16. Francisco J. Varela, Principles of Biological Autonomy, North Holland Series in 
General Systems Research, vol. 2 (New York: North Holland, 1979). 

17. Humberto R. Maturana, “Biology of Language: The Epistemology of Reality,” in 
Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought: Essays in Honor of Eric Lenneherg, 
edited bv George A. Miller and Elizabeth Lenneherg (New' York: Academic Press, 
1978), p. 59. 

IS. Ibid.,p. 63. 

19. The foremost theorist extending autopoietic theory into social systems is of 
course Niklas Luhmann. Ilis major works include The Differentiation of Society (New 
York: Columbia University Press, 1982) and Social Systems, translated by John Bedriarz 
Jr., with Dirk Baeker (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995). Also of interest with 
regard to his appropriation of autopoietic theory are his articles “Operational Closure 
and Structural Coupling: The Differentiation of the Legal System,” Cardozo Law Re- 
view 13 (1992): 1419—41, and “The Cognitive Program of Constructivism and a Reality 
That Remains Unknown” in Self-Organization: Portrait of a Scientific Revolution, 
edited by Wolfgang Krohnetal. (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990). 

20. Simon Baron-Cohen, Mindhlindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind 
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997). 

21. Francisco J. Varela, “Describing the Logie of the Living: The Adequacy and 
Limitations of the Idea of Autopoiesis,” in Zeleny, Autopoiesis: A Theory, p. 36. 

22. See, for example, Richard C. Lewontin. Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine 
of DNA (New York: Harper and Row, 1993); Evelyn Fox Keller, Refiguring Life: 
Metaphors of Twentieth-Century Biology (New York: Columbia University Press, 
1995); Richard Doyle, On Beyond Living: Rhetorical Transformations in the Life 
Sciences (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997); and Lily E. Kay, “Cybernetics, In- 
formation, Life: The Emergence of Scriptural Representations of Heredity,” Configu- 
rations 5 (winter 1997): 23-92. 

23. Humberto R. Maturana, “Autopoiesis: Reproduction, Heredity, and Evolu- 
tion,” in Autopoiesis, Dissipative Structures, and Spontaneous Social Orders, edited 
by Milan Zeleny, AAAS Selected Symposium (Boulder: Westview Press, 1980), 

p. 62. 

24. Humberto II. Maturana and Francisco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Bio- 
logical Roots of Human Understanding (Boston: New' Science Library, 1987). 

Nores to Pages 153-64 / 311 

25. In Maturana and Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition, Maturana notes that one 
cannot “account or deduce all actual biological phenomena from the notion of au- 
topoiesis without resorting to historical contingencies” (p. xxiii). He makes this admis- 
sion, however, onlv to argue that this does not represent a shortcoming of the theory. 

26. Humberto R. Maturana, “The Origin of the Theory of Autopoietic Systems,” in 
Autopoiesis; Eine theorie im Brennpunkt der Kritik, edited by Hans R. Fisher (Heidel- 
berg: Verlag, 1991), p. 123. 

27. Varela, Principles, p. xvii; Varela, "Describing the Logic of the Living,’’ p. 36 (em- 
phasis added). 

28. Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: 
Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991). 

29. Francisco J. Varela, “Making It Concrete: Before, During, and After Break- 
downs," in Revisioning Philosophy, edited by James Ogi Ivy (Albany: State University of 
New York Press, 1992), p. 103. 

30. See the chapters in Zeleny’s Autopoiesis, Dissipative Structures, and Sponta- 
neous Social Orders for a good overview ol this work. 

31. Maturana and Varela, The Tree of Knowledge, p. 242. 

Chapter Seven 

1 . Of Philip K. Dick’s novels from this period, I will discuss or mention We Can Build 
You (originally titled The First in Your Family), written in 1 962 and published in 1969 as 
A. Lincoln, Simulacrum (the edition cited in this chapter is London: Grafton Books, 
1986); Martian Time-Slip (originally titled Goodmember Arnie KottofMars), written in 
1962 and published in 1964 (the cited edition is New York: Vintage Books, 1995); Dr. 
Bloodmonet/; or, How We Got Along after the Bomb, written in 1963 and published in 
1965 (the cited edition is New York: Carroll and Grat, 1988); The Simulacra (originally 
titled The First Lady of Earth), written in 1963 and published in 1964 (the cited edition 
is London: Methuen Paperbacks, n.d.); The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, written 
in 1964 and published in 1965 (the cited edition is New York: Bantam, 1964): Do An- 
droids Dream of Electric Sheep? (originally titled The Electric Toad: Do Androids 
Dream?), written in 1966 and published in 1 968 (the cited edition, published under the 
title Blade Runner, is New York: Ballantine Books, 1982); and Ubik (originally titled 
Death of an Anti-watcher), written in 1966 and published in 1969 (the cited edition is 
London: Grafton Books, 1973), Information about dates, original titles, and first publi- 
cation is taken from Lawrence Sutin, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (Secau- 
eus, N.J.: Carol Publishing, 1991). 

2. Philip K. Dick, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days 
Later,” in The Shifting Realities of Philip K Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical 
Writings, edited by Lawrence Sutin (New York: Pantheon Books, 1995), pp. 263-64. 

3. Istvan Gsicsery-Ronay | r, points out the dearth of feminist criticism on Dick in the 
introduction to On Philip K Dick: 40 Articles from Science-Fiction Studies, edited by 
R. D. Mullen, Istvan Csicserv-Ronay Jr., Arthur B, Evans, and Veronica Hollinger 
(Terre Haute: SF-TH, 1992), pp. v-xvii. 

4. As Dick grew older and the women grew younger, “girl” becomes less a mark of 
sexist construction (hardly unusual in a man of Dick’s age and upbringing) and more an 
indication of actual chronological age. 

3/2 / Notes to Pages 164-77 

5. Philip K. Dick, “The Evolution of a Vital Love,” in The Dark-Haired Girl (Willi- 
mantie. Conn,: Mark V. Ziesing, 1988), p, 171. 

6. Marxist criticism in general, of course, favors systematic and economic explana- 
tions over psychological ones. Articles that argue for the importance of economic read- 
ings include the following, all published in Mullen, Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Evans, and 
Hollinger, On Philip K Dick: Peter Fitting, “Reality as Ideological Construct: A Read- 
ing of Five Novels by Philip K. Dick,” pp. 92-110: Peter Fitting, “Ubik: The Decon- 
struction of Bourgeois SF,” pp. 41-M8; and Scott Durham, “From the Death of the 
Subject to a Theology of Late Capitalism,” pp. 1 88-98. 

7. Sutin, Divine Invasions, pp. 11-19,29-34. 

8. Quoted in ibid., p. 12. 

9. Documented in ibid.: see for example p. 26. 

10. The lesbian Alys, a sexually vibrant woman with dark hair, is also involved in an 
incestuous relationship with her twin brother. As if reflecting Jane's death, she is made 
the victim of entropic forces, experiencingpreternatually fast decay while her brother is 

11. Dick w'as an avid reader of Jung s works and frequently referred to Jungian ar- 
chetypes, for example the Magna Mater, in his fiction. It is likely that he consciously 
thought of Jane in terms of his anima. 

12. Patricia Warrick, “The Labyrinthian Process of the Artificial: Dick’s Androids 
and Mechanical Constructs,” Extrapolation 20 ( 1979): 133-53, also makes this point in 
a different context when she argues: “For Dick, the outcome of w'ar — be it military or 
economic — is not victory or defeat, but a transformation into the opposite. We become 
the goal we pursue, the enemy we fight” (p. 139). 

13. Carl Freedman, “Towards aTheory of Paranoia: The Science Fiction of Philip K. 
Dick,” in Mullen, Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Evans, and Hollinger, On Philip K. Dick, 

pp. 111-18. 

14. Dick, The Simulacra, p. 201. 

15. Scott Durham, “From the Death of the Subject.” 

16. Dick, The Three Stigmata, p. 160. 

17. Patricia Warrick, “Labyrinthian Process.” 

1 8. Dick, We Can Build You, p. 34. 

19. Rachael is described as slim and lithe with “heavy masses of dark hair.” Because 
of her “diminutive breasts, ” her body “assumed a lank, almost childlike stance,” though 
Deckard is in no doubt that she is a sexually mature woman. The “total impression,” al- 
though “good.” is “definitely that of a girl, not a woman.” See Dick, Do Androids Dream, 
p. 164. 

20. I am indebted to Jill Galvan for pointing out this pun in “Entering the Posthuman 
Collective in Philip K, Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’’ (forthcoming, 
Science-Fiction Studies). 

21. Philip K. Dick, “Schizophrenia and The Book of Changes,” in Sutin, Shifting Re- 
alities, pp. 175-82, especially p. 176. 

22. See R. D. Laing, The Divided Self (New York: Pantheon Books, 1969). 

23. Quoted in Warrick, "Labyrinthian Process,” p. 141. 

24. Philip K. Dick, “The Android and the Human,” in Sutin, Shifting Realities, 

p. 208. 

25. Galvin, “Entering the Posthuman Collective.” 

Notes to Pages 178-93 / 313 

26. Dick, Do Androids Dream , p. 185. 

27. Dick, The Three Stigmata, p. 101. 

28. Fredric Jameson, “After Armageddon: Character Systems in Dr. Bloodmoney,” 
in Mullen, Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Evans, and Hollinger, On Philip K. Dick, pp. 26-36. 

29. Ibid., p. 27. 

30. Dick, Dr. Bloodmoney, p. 66. 

31. Dick, Ubik, p. 107. 

32. Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Bio- 
logical Roots of Human Understanding (Boston: New Science Library', 1987), p. 242. 

33. Sutin, Divine Invasions, pp. 222-34. 

34. Humberto R. Maturana, “Biologyof Language: The Epistemology ofRealityf’in 
Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought: Essays in Honor of Eric Lenneherg, 
edited by George A. Miller and Elizabeth Lenneberg (New York:; Academic Press, 
1978), p. 46, remarks: “In the absence of an adequate environmental perturbation, the 
observer claims that the observed conduct is a result of an illusion or a hallucination. Yet, 
for the operation of the nervous system (and organism), there cannot be a distinction 
between illusions, hallucinations, or perceptions, because a closed neuronal network 
cannot discriminate between internally and externally triggered changes in relative 
neuronal activity. This distinction pertains exclusively to the domain of description in 
which the observer defines an inside and an outside for the nervous system and the or- 

35. Philip K. Dick, In Pursuit ofValis: Selections from The Exegesis, edited by 
Lawrence Sutin (Novato, Calif.: Underwood-Miller. 1991), p. 45. 

36. Dick, Do Androids Dream, p. 210. 

Chapter Eight 

1. Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication, translated by Bernard Schutze 
and Caroline Schutze (New York: Semiotext(e), 1988), p. 18. 

2. Arthur Kroker and Marilouise Kroker, “Panic Sex in America,” Body Invaders: 
Panic Sex in America (New York: St. Martin s Press, 1987), pp. 20-21. 

3. O. B. Hardison Jr., Disappearingthrough the Skylight: Culture and Technology in 
the Twentieth Century (New York: Viking, 1989), p. 335. 

4. By “informatics,” 1 mean the material, technological, economic, and social struc- 
tures that make the information age possible. Informatics includes the following: the 
late capitalist mode of flexible accumulation; the hardware and software that have 
merged telecommunications with computer technology; the patterns of living that 
emerge from and depend on access to large data banks and instantaneous transmission 
of messages; and the physical habits — of posture, eye focus, hand motions, and neural 
connections — that are reconfiguring the human body in conjunction with information 
technologies. For readers who know the term “informatics" mainly from Donna 
Haraway s work, where it frequently occurs as “the informatics of domination,” I should 
clarify how this term is currently being used in technical and humanistic fields here and 
abroad. To computer people, “informatics” means simply the study and design of infor- 
mation technologies. In many European countries, especially Norway, Denmark, 
and Germany, departments of humanistic informatics are being formed to study the 
cultural impact and significance of information technologies. Researchers in these 

3>4 / Notes to Pages 194-205 

departments regard “informatics” as a descriptive term no more value-laden than 
physics, biology, or literature. A historian in such a department may study the history of 
computers; a linguist, correlations between computer and natural languages; a literary 
theorist, new forms of electronic textuality. 

5. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by 
Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979), p. 205. 

6. In his later work, especially The History of Sexuality, translated by Robert Hurley 
(New York: Vintage Books, 1980), Foucault is much more attentive to embodied prac- 
tices and the importance of embodiment in general. 

7. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New 
York: Oxford University Press, 1985). 

8. See Mark Poster, The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context 
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 69-98, for a critique of Foucault’s uni- 
versalism. Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contem- 
porary Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), pp. 55-66. 
interrogates the Foucaultian body. 

9. Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: 
Indiana University' Press, 1994). 

10. For a brief description of PET, see Richard Mark Friedhoff and William 
Benzon, The Second Computer Revolution: Visualization (New York: Harry Abrams, 
1989), pp. 64-66, 81, 185. 

11. Jorge Luis Borges, “Funes the Memor